Career Profile: Nuclear Divers

For nuclear power stations, water is an essential, multi-purpose tool used to generate nearly 20 percent of the nation’s electricity needs. Acting in many roles, water is a barrier against radiation emitted from nuclear fuel. It is also a coolant that reduces high temperatures. Water, in the form of steam, acts as energy that drives the turbine to spin incredibly fast, and also helps condense that steam back into its liquid state.

In a nuclear power station, where there is water, there is always work to do. But, how do you work in water?

IMG_0900In swims nuclear divers.
Nuclear divers are professional, commercial divers who assist nuclear power plants throughout the year with inspections, preventative maintenance and emergent issues.

Jeremy Roach, a Reactor Services technician with Duke Energy’s Oconee Nuclear Station, said his team works with nuclear divers mostly in the spent fuel pools; those pools store spent nuclear fuel for several years before they are moved to a permanent storage location on site. Spent fuel pools are connected to the reactor through an underwater transfer tube.

“They have performed work on our spent fuel valves that close water off to the reactor,” Roach said. “They can also help us with the transfer system ‘up-ender’ that allows fuel to be sent back and forth from the reactor to the pool – divers are essential in order to perform preventative maintenance or when a problem occurs.”

DIVER READY TO DESCEND TO RIG NORTH CARTMost recently, Roach said, Oconee partnered with divers to install new components for the fuel transfer system upgrade.

Although divers do sometimes swim in the reactor building itself, Roach said it’s rare.

“It’s not a normal occurrence for divers to be in the reactor building,” he said. “That is typically only for emergent issues.”

While divers are needed in critical fuel storage areas, they are also just as important in other water systems, such as the stations’ condenser cooling water (CCW) structures. At Oconee, the CCW system uses Lake Keowee to pump millions of gallons of water every minute into large pipes that help cool steam back into its liquid state.

Oconee’s Maintenance outage coordinator Jeremy Moore said divers go into the CCW system before each planned refueling outage.

“Divers will dive down to see the structures inside the CCW pump bay,” Moore said. “They’ll look for indications of water levels and make repairs when needed. Of course, the pump is isolated while inspections occur.”

Moore said that divers will also swim on the other side of the intake structure – in the waters of Lake Keowee – to inspect structural concrete and the stainless mesh screens that keep debris out of the intake.

Tom Eason, vice president of operations for Eason Diving and Marine Contractors in Charleston, SC, and his team provide diving services for all of Duke Energy’s nuclear plants, in addition to other nuclear plants and non-nuclear facilities across the Southeast.

“Our main concern when working in nuclear plants is water temperature and radiation,” Eason said. “We wear heavy rubber dry-suits to protect against radiation; that suit can be very hot when you add warmer water temperatures. We wear cooling vests and have specialized equipment to keep us cool when necessary.”

Eason said his team stays busy year-round providing support for nuclear plants, as well as other industries. Eason Diving has provided support to Duke Energy since the 1980s.

“We have good relationships with good people,” he said.

From Cadets to Nuclear Professionals

While military veterans are common in the nuclear industry, Harris Nuclear Plant’s Carmen Lewis and Gray Tompson have an uncommon story.

Lewis, an instructor in Operations Training and Tompson, a senior human performance coordinator in Maintenance, both served as officers in the U.S. Navy, but their connection goes back prior to commissioning. Lewis and Tompson were squad mates while cadets at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.

Carmen Lewis (left) and Gray Tompson were once squad mates at the U.S. Naval Academy. Now, they both help provide electricity to nearly 1,000,000 people in North Carolina

Carmen Lewis (left) and Gray Tompson were once squad mates at the U.S. Naval Academy. Now, they help provide electricity to nearly 1,000,000 people in North Carolina.

“Since then, our careers have taken the same track,” Lewis said, “and ultimately, we ended up here (at Harris Nuclear Plant).”

After the Naval Academy, they both completed the Navy’s Nuclear Power School in Charleston, S.C. and later ended up on the U.S.S. George H.W. Bush where Lewis was a reactor operator and Tompson oversaw maintenance operations on many of the ship’s nuclear and non-nuclear systems. Lewis left the Navy in 2012 and joined Duke Energy at the Harris Nuclear Plant in 2013. Tompson spent a year at Ft. Bragg with the Special Operations Joint Command before leaving active duty in 2013. He still serves in the Navy Reserves as a lieutenant assigned to the Military Sealift Command. He joined Duke Energy in 2014.

Tompson credits his active duty service with helping ease the transition to commercial nuclear power.

“While I was active, I qualified as an operator for a Westinghouse pressurized water reactor, and much of the theory and even terminology is identical,” Tompson said. “I started here day one with a good understanding of how the plant works which translated into an appreciation for how various problems impact nuclear safety.

In a more general sense, my time in the military taught me the value of ‘pulling your weight.’ No one else can do your task but you. Success relies on every task being complete at the right time.”

Duke Energy has a long history of employing veterans of the United States Armed Forces across its enterprise. It is Duke’s longstanding belief that the knowledge and skills gained in the military translate well to a rewarding career in the electric utility industry. Veterans know how to evaluate risk, work as part of a team, overcome obstacles and solve problems. Duke Energy values these qualities in its workforce.

Duke Energy’s nuclear fleet – and the nuclear industry as a whole – is especially interested in graduates of the U.S. Navy’s Nuclear Propulsion program, like Tompson and Lewis, since the fundamentals and components education graduates receive is directly applicable to careers at nuclear power plants. With the shortage of skilled workers in nuclear energy, and the impending retirement of a significant number of workers, this pipeline is of vital importance to the industry.

“U.S. military veterans are, and will continue to be, vital to our nuclear workforce,” said Duke Energy’s Chief Nuclear Officer Bill Pitesa. “Across our fleet, former sailors, airmen, soldiers, marines and guardsmen and women are integral to the safe and efficient operation of our nuclear facilities.”

That’s a wrap: Nuclear Science Week by the numbers


This gallery contains 6 photos.

While Duke Energy supports its nuclear plant neighbors in a variety of ways, Nuclear Science Week provides a special opportunity for employees to inform others about their work and share their enthusiasm for nuclear energy. This year, volunteers reached out to more than 1,800 students and … Continue reading