In May, Unit 2 of Wisconsin Energy's Point Beach nuclear power plant was shut down after a cord connecting a diver performing maintenance in the plant's intake structure became entangled in a water pipe grate.
The diver was conducting a routine inspection of the water intake and a system that uses sound waves to keep fish away from the intake pipe. The shutdown was ordered to stop the powerful force of the inrushing water. Once turned off, the diver easily swam to the surface and climbed into his boat.
Such a minor event points to the importance of taking seriously even routine underwater power plant maintenance jobs. Maintenance supervisors and engineers — particularly those involved with hydroelectric facilities — are often called upon to hire commercial dive companies for routine service and emergency situations. Divers are also needed for non-hydro plant maintenance and repair services such as water intake and discharge structures and the cleaning and replacement of water intake screens.
In choosing a dive company, the project manager must consider price, the contractor's ability to meet Federal and other standards and qualifications, and the company's ability to start and complete the job in a timely manner. All companies competing for the job will try to prove they meet these requirements.
"The question then becomes, what separates the men from the boys," says Gary Weaks, president of 2-W Diving, a company the U.S. Navy-trained diver has owned for more than 15 years. "Selecting a dive company for an important job can make a project manager feel like a fish out of water."
When accepting proposals, a power plant project manager may have to grapple with unfamiliar terms and equipment and be forced to rely upon a company's paperwork to select the best crew for the assignment. Weaks offers a few pointers that can make the decision a little less daunting.
He says there is no substitute for the dive company's experience. "Take a look at what the company has been doing and how long it's been doing it. It seems elementary, but it's amazing how few people really check references when the price is right and there are assurances that the company complies with OSHA regulations and is fully qualified and insured."
Another aspect of experience is the degree of familiarity the dive company has with facilities like the one it will be working on. Most dive companies do not specialize in specific areas, so there is a big advantage if a company has successfully completed similar jobs. "The Navy used to put together its dive crews by pulling people from a variety of fields such as engineers, machinists, welders and so forth to ensure they had a pool of knowledge and talent capable of handling any situation that might occur," says Weaks. "The divers were tradesmen before being trained as divers, making them doubly qualified as professionals."
Experience as a welder has often served Weaks on a job. Crews often fabricate necessary tools or structures to aid repair. He says that divers must realize that 95% of an underwater job is topside preparation.
The diving supervisor should have a thorough understanding of the engineering aspects of a hydroelectric plant to assure he and plant personnel are on the same page when it comes to the task at hand. "Otherwise, the dive crew may not know how to handle an unexpected situation that may arise. The dive crew leader must understand the terminology you're using, be familiar with the facility's equipment, and be able to describe what his crew will be doing in terms that you clearly understand."
Weaks says that when divers have solid backgrounds and diversified experience, the plant owner may be pleasantly surprised by the results. "Perhaps a diver with a good knowledge of engineering can do more than just make a necessary repair. Perhaps he can suggest a permanent solution to the problem that could save a facility an enormous amount of money in the long term."
He recommends asking the company for its workers' compensation experience modification rate (EMR), which provides an instant glance into the company's success with regard to their safety programs. High numbers are a red flag to the possibility of accident or injury on a project. He also recommends logging onto the OSHA website at www.osha.gov or ADC (The Association for Diving Contracters) at www.adc-int.org, to become familiarized with professional standards and guidelines.