Nuclear health physics technician retires

Nancy Gruber looks back on a great career; looks forward to a new chapter

By Tina Snell,  Staff Writer

Nancy Gruber, Royalton, spent more than 30 years with the nuclear reactor industry. An odd job for a woman, especially one hired in 1978.

When Gruber applied for a guard position at the Monticello Power Plant, she knew she wouldn’t be discriminated against because of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, just a dozen years old.

Nancy Gruber, Royalton, recently retired from the nuclear industry after 33 years. She started as an armed guard and finished as a senior health physics technician.
Nancy Gruber, Royalton, recently retired from the nuclear industry after 33 years. She started as an armed guard and finished as a senior health physics technician.

“I was bold enough to try for the job,” she said. Because women were just beginning to break into the nuclear world and being promoted in non-traditional jobs, she was hired and given extensive training in firearms, automatic weapons and grenades.

After a year, she was promoted to sergeant with 12 crew members under her.

“I had never picked up a weapon before, but was in the top 85 percent of my class,” Gruber said.

In 1980, Gruber was promoted and was sent to the east coast to undergo three years of training as a health physics technician. She graduated as an American Nuclear Society Institute senior health physics technician. She was then working for the United States Nuclear Power Plants.

“The money was far better than being a guard and I traveled all over the country, something I always wanted to do,” she said.

And travel she did, for the next 30 years. Gruber only worked six months a year, usually in the spring and the fall. She traveled to reactor plants when they were down for refueling or for steam generator replacement. She and her crew would check for gamma and beta radiation leaks, contamination and airborne radioactive materials, all for the protection of personnel and the general public from radiation exposure.

“We took air samples for testing and I would document the numbers for levels of contamination, dose rates and airborne contaminates,” she said. She carried a Geiger counter or an ion chamber to alert her to safety issues.

When the plant she worked on was refueled, her job was done and she moved on to another plant that was going down for refueling and needed leak testing done.

“Each plant has a different procedure, but all follow the Nuclear Commission guidelines. Some plants need hourly testings, others daily,” she said.

Gruber has worked at about 30 of the approximately 90 active reactors in the country.

“The plant in Monticello has a boiling water reactor where the one in Prairie Island had two pressurized water reactors. Some take 30 days to refuel, others six months,” she said. The largest reactors are in Arizona, Texas, California and Ohio.

While her job could be physically demanding, especially when she climbed to the top of the reactors five or six times a day carrying her gear, other times she would just have to stand and watch the refueling process.

“One of the scariest moments I had was when a radiation source left its lead-lined container to test an area for leaks in valves, pipes or welds and the cable which carried it was defective. It wouldn’t retract to return the source to its container,” she said. “The exposure to the area went from two millirems per hour to 200 millirems per hour.”

Gruber said she had to move the boundaries back from the radiation source and stop all work.

“It was my ion chamber that alerted me and the other workers to the danger,” she said. “It all happened within seconds. Thank goodness I was paying attention.”

Gruber said that many times it’s complacency which causes accidents.

“It took two days to repair the cable and return the radiation source to the lead-lined container,” she said.

Gruber said there is a difference between contamination from radioactive materials, which can be washed off, and radiation over-exposure which can be lethal.

Nuclear reactor personnel wear protective clothing to protect the skin from radioactive material. But clothing doesn’t protect the body from gamma radiation which is similar to the sun’s exposure to the skin.

She said exposure to gamma radiation goes right through a person. It doesn’t stay, but a high dose will kill.

“It was a fascinating career which enabled me to travel, meet people and make friends all over the country,” she said. “I loved the job and was good at it.”

Gruber met her husband, Gary in 1991 and they married in 2004.

“It was harder to travel after that, hard to leave Gary,” she said. “I am now actively seeking local employment so I can be home nights.”