A story I promised to post.
A few years ago I was asked to join a team of engineers who were going to repair Madras Atomic Power station. We knew at the time that this stations main reason for existence was not to produce power at all, but to produce tritium gas which is a nuclear trigger. The Indhira Ghandi fast breeder reactor was just a few hundred yards away, so I suppose the international community was well aware that India was going to become a Nuclear Power well before it was reported in the press.
The Americans tried to stop us doing the job, everyone else had refused as the high radiation levels meant a very high risk to the workers. Eventually it went to the UK government who decided that the American wishes were not relevant and we were allowed to fly out on the understanding that we would destroy any American equipment we used to prevent the technology from passing into Indian hands. As the robot we were going to use was American, we knew that this was a one way trip for one piece of equipment.
The madras atomic power station (MAPS) was a "CANDU" reactor, a Canadian design that has a basic design flaw, if the wrong steel is used during construction. The Canadians had pulled out of construction years ago and the Indian government had completed the job indigenously. They had used the wrong steel. The wrong steel after a few years would turn into something like glass and would shatter at the slightest touch. This is what had happened here, and we needed to cut out the damaged parts of the reactor.
We were going to use a schilling manipulator, an American robot normally used for deep sea exploration, it wasn't perfect for the job, but it was all that was available at the time.
We also had two camera manipulators so we could see what we were doing inside the reactor. We took six spare cameras, we knew that the life of these cameras was only 10 hours in the extremely high radiation fields of the reactor, but we thought we had enough to see us through the job.
After 3 days we were ready for our first incursion in the reactor. I was the Electrical/Software/Robot Driver Guy. All three manipulators were put into the reactor and all of a sudden the cameras went completely black. We withdrew the manipulators, to our horror they were all completely red rusty. We were told that they had forgotten to tell us that the atmosphere within the reactor was high in sulphuric acid, we painted the manipulators in protective synthetic paint afterwards but this did not explain why the cameras went black.
After some investigation, we discovered that although the cameras were radiation hardened (quartz optics), the mirrors and prisms were not. Glass turns to what amounts to lead when it is irradiated to these levels. As we had no working cameras, we were looking at returning back to the UK and abandoning the job.
Driving back to the hotel that evening I had an Idea. All the optics that failed were mirrors, apart from a very important pan and tilt camera that used a prism. Front silvered mirrors were not affected by radiation. We could rip out the prism and damaged mirrors and replace them with the front silvered mirrors that were the spares for a single camera. As I knew astronomy I was well aware that a front silvered mirror, cut accurately, could replace a prism. As I had suggested this, I got the job of going in the next day to attempt to repair the cameras.
The next day I set out in a taxi with a nuclear health physics engineer called "Billy" from Dounray, he had been sent along to look after us.
When we arrived on site we were told that the facility was completely closed. There had been a leak of tritium gas overnight and the whole reactor building was a no go area, the leak was enormous, the whole building was flooded with gas.
The problem with tritium gas is that it has a very short half life of less than 24 hours. If ingested, the only way of detecting it in the body is by a urine test, after 24 hours the urine test would prove negative no matter how much radiation you were exposed to, dangerous stuff. After consultation it was decided that I would go in alone wearing a radiation suit.
Now these suits are not like dinner jackets, they are huge heavy things with air and urine lines that you normally connect to lines in the reactor building. You cannot put them on yourself, you cannot get them off yourself. I had been trained on how to use the suits but this was the first time I had ever had to wear one in anger so to speak.
Billy dressed me in the suit and checked the fittings, he explained that I did not need a urine line as I was not going to be in there for more than 2 hours. He told me that my airline was an international standard and all I needed to do was look for the air line and connect to it once I got in there. He also told me that once my airline was disconnected, I had 9 minutes of air left in the suit. I disconnected the static airline when the airlock door opened.
I went through the airlock inner door, the exit door led to the reactor, the airlock was as big as a garage, the whole building was at negative pressure to stop any radiation from leaking to the outside. Once in the airlock, It took 5 minutes for the pressure to equalise and for the exit door to open.
I must admit I felt quite scared at first, when the door opened I was confronted with this huge building filled with highly radioactive gas, and I was the only person there. I felt very lonely.
Once I was inside, obviously the first thing I did was to look for the breathable air line. I found one after some searching and tried to plug in, it didn't fit. I got on the RT to Billy who said it must be a damaged fitting and I should try another. I found another one and that did not fit either. Billy got annoyed, he told me to try one last one and if that did not fit to come out. I was sure by his tone he thought I did not know how to connect the air line. I tried one more fitting, it did not fit. I told Billy over the RT that it did not fit, he told me to forget it and come out now.
By this time I had used 5 minutes of air getting into the containment area, and another 3 to 4 minutes realising my air lines did not fit.
My 9 minutes of air was up, and I still had 5 minutes if I wanted to get through the airlock alive. I thought about trying to rip the suit off but it was impossible, it was like a spacesuit and I was helpless.
I quickly ran to the airlock and hit the button that told the door to close and start the automatic re pressurisation to the outside world. It seemed like ages, the lack of air started to show itself by the dew drops on the visor and the feeling of extreme warmth. I tried to shorten my breath but everything was happening far too fast.
Billy called me to the portal window, a small round porthole type window in the 3 foot thick lead door that was the exit door of the airlock, he told me not to move. "Stay here and keep looking into my eyes" I remember him saying.
The next thing I remember I was lying on the floor looking up at Billy. Apparently I had passed out only seconds before the airlock door blew open. He dragged me out and ripped the suit from my face and revived me.
Later that day, the Indians apologised for not having international fittings, they gave us the correct ones and I went back in and completed the job. Have you any idea how difficult it is to use a glass cutter in a spacesuit ?
I did suffer however, later I found out that the supposed breathable air I was given the fittings for, was actually lubricated air. I was breathing air+oil for over 2 hours and my chest made me know if for the next week.
This was one of the most exciting job I had ever been on and there are many more stories about it, but this to me will always be the one I remember.
Best times ?
1. Fixing the cameras.
2. Having 120 employees applauding you, they were standing behind me when I managed to execute a VERY DANGEROUS manoeuvre successfully in the reactor. I put a cross of Jesus on the console for inspiration.
3. Not getting killed.
Biggest Funny ?
When I was driving the robot, Allan was operating the cameras and Kevin was taking notes. His only job was to take notes even though everything was being recorded on audio and video. When we first went into the reactor, the writing in his notes was legible. As we got deeper and deeper into the reactor his writing, and his hands, began to shake. It seemed the shaking was in direct proportion to the depth we got into the reactor. In the end I took my hands off the controls and asked him what his problem was. I was driving the robot, he was just taking notes, why was he so scared ? He left, he could take no more. The Chief Engineer on the project simply locked himself into a room in the Admin building and told us not to disturb him until the job was finished. Cowards.
Worst time ?
The worst time I had on this job was having the Alpha Particle test to see if you had ingested any Plutonium. It was nothing more than a hewn out concrete cave 20 meters below the surface of the Earth with a massive alpha particle detector hovering above you.
I had to lie there for 2 hours, if the particle detector detected a single alpha particle you had plutonium inside you, a death sentence. I was not worried about that, what I hated was the fact that the guy who was in charge of my test asked me what music I would like to listen to for the next two hours.
I had a choice, either western or Indian. I have no idea to this day if he heard my request for Western music. All I remember was him clicking the start button on the tape recorder and as his back disappeared and the door closed behind him, the sound of Indian music filling my ears, I suffered it for two hours.
Well that and several Indians basically committing suicide by throwing themselves into highly radioactive areas. Another story.
The result of this job was that we irradiated 120 locals, took ourselves to the maximum Radiation Exposure limit before an international enquiry was triggered, and since this job was completed, three of the nine individuals that took part in the project have contracted leukaemia. Luckily no one has died.... YET.
I Hope you enjoyed this story. I have a few more if your interested. About this job I worked on and several more.
Please feel free to discuss the science behind this story, it may open a few eyes.