February 1984 - VOLUME 5 - NUMBER 2
Nuclear Janitors Risk Health and Safety
by Veta Christy
They are known as glow-boys or jumpers in the nuclear industry. Since the early 1970s, thousands of temporary workers have been recruited to perform a number of high-risk maintenance and repair tasks, such as detecting leaks, welding and refueling, and waste cleanup and removal. But while federal standards permit jumpers to absorb about ten times the amount of radiation that the general public is exposed to, concerned scientists and industry critics are questioning whether these levels are necessary or socially justifiable.
The jumpers are hired by contractors like Atlantic Nuclear Services of Norfolk, Virginia (an estimated 23,000 have passed through their door since 1974) or directly by reactor manufacturers like Babcock and Wilcox or Westinghouse, which contract repair and maintenance services to more than half of the nation's utilities. Estimates of the number of jumpers this year are as high as 40,000.
"We've had people from a variety of backgrounds, from college professors to bartenders, work for us," says Melvin Miller, a spokesman for Nuclear Services. "They do it because it pays well. Maybe they make a jump and then have some extra money for a vacation that year, or maybe it helps them through rough times in between jobs."
Other jumpers are recruited from the ranks of the construction unions who build the plants when construction work is slow. But the majority are typically people with few job skills and little or no prospects for jobs elsewhere.
Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) standards permit jumpers to absorb from five to 12 rems of radiation per year, about ten times as much radiation as members of the general public receive. (One rem is roughly equal to radiation received from 40 chest x-rays.) The precise health effects of repeated exposure to low level radiation are unknown. At first, groups like the National Council on Radiation and the International Commission on Radiation Protection (whose recommendations are the basis for NRC guidelines) believed that appreciable risk dropped off to zero at a certain dose-a threshold-below which a worker was considered safe. In recent years, radiation researchers have junked the threshold theory and for the most part seem to think that any exposure to radiation carries a risk.
Meanwhile, thousands of young men, mostly in their mid-twenties, crawl into steam generators to do vital repair and maintenance work without the support of union representation, health insurance plan, or job security, and with very little information about the risks they are taking with each exposure. Paul Shoop of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), the union that represents about 75 percent of all organized utility workers, says that jumpers are difficult to organize because they are scattered about, hired by small contractors maybe once or twice a year. "Union representation elections are extremely hard to organize when you have workers as spread out as these are," says Shoop. "And we don't have a strong national contract that prevents utilities from contracting this kind of work out."
Jumpers hired by Atlantic Nuclear Services are shown a training film that compares the radiation exposure they are about to receive with eating charcoal broiled steaks, smoking cigarettes, or taking a trip on the freeway. "My group watched a lot of video tapes that said as long as the exposure was under the recommended NRC guidelines we would be safe," says Peter Lathrop, a factory worker who was recruited as a jumper while construction work was slow. "I knew I was taking a risk, but I guess I figured it would be okay because I wouldn't do it again."
The IBEW supports present NRC occupational levels of radiation exposure, but Jerry Archuleta of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union questions those exposure levels and the lack of training for jumpers and other temporary workers in the nuclear industry. "Companies tell these workers that these low levels are no more harmful than eating a steak or smoking a couple of cigarettes. We don't believe that is true. The truth is, researchers don't know what the effects of low level exposure to radiation are."
Critics of the nuclear industry believe that the utilities have been able to meet NRC guidelines for maximum individual radiation exposure only by increasing the number of total workers exposed to harmful radiation. The Environmental Protection Agency has criticized the industry for distributing radiation exposure more widely instead of lowering the collective exposure. ,
A study done at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts showed that not only had the number of temporary workers at nuclear power plants increased from about 2,000 in 1972 to 23,000 in 1976, but that the amount of radiation going to jumpers doubled in the same period (that is, their percentage of rems received by all nuclear workers increased from 24 to 47 percent).
The statistics illustrate that as the industry grows older it relies more and more on the willingness of temporary and sometimes desperate workers to risk their health to keep ailing power plants on line. And as the plants grow older, an extremely difficult repair often requires the use of many jumpers because they can only stay in the generator for a few minutes before reaching their maximum exposure.
Another serious problem is the increasing number of jumpers working at several plants in one year. This increases the worker's total exposure to radiation and the possibility of birth defects, cancer, and leukemia. NRC records indicate that some jumpers worked at as many as five nuclear plants during one calendar year. At the present time the responsibility for reporting past radiation exposure rests solely with the jumpers.
A system could easily be organized to keep track of their records, however. Currently all companies must send quarterly reports to the NRC on the number of jumpers, their names, and the dosage received.
In 1982, the Atomic Industrial Forum found that these employment records could be monitored by computer systems that would cost about $150,000 and could be run effectively by only five utility companies. According to the Forum, the system would not only prevent jumpers from working over exposure limits, but could assist researchers in studying the long term effects of low level radiation. But a survey sent to all U.S. utilities revealed that not enough companies were willing to participate to make the system useful and that 13 companies, about onethird of all U.S. utilities, would not commit any funds to such a system.
The only development that might reduce the number of jumpers and the collective exposure levels currently tolerated is the further development of robotics systems capable of diagnosis and repair in high radiation areas without assistance. Limited robot systems have been used for underwater repair for several years now. Duke Power, headquartered in Charlotte, North Carolina, claims to have significantly reduced collective exposure by using robots. Company spokesman Andy Thompson says the radiation exposure at all the utility's plants is much lower than the industry average and that the utility has formed a committee to study the possibilities of further use of robots.
In March, Babcock and Wilcox will begin using a robot system capable of surveying and repairing problems inside the steam generator without human assistance. ROGER, which stands for Remotely Operated Generator Exam and Repair, will be tested at about 15 plants this spring. George Beam, who heads the robot development program at Babcock and Wilcox, believes such systems will enable the nuclear industry to train people in the more highly skilled jobs in the industry, while drastically reducing radiation exposure and almost completely eliminating the need for temporary workers.
What is yet to be seen is whether or not U.S. utilities will be willing to make the necessary investments in advanced robot systems. For larger utilities (those serving more than a million customers), the cost of new robot systems like Babcock and Wilcox's ROGER may be justifiable. But for small and moderately sized utilities, contracting for jumpers' services may still prove to be most cost effective.
Veta Christy is a freelance journalist based in Pittsburgh. Her reports are regularly aired on National Public Radio.