Navy Nuclear Power School Experience

Jan. 10, 2020

Here's a bit I wrote about Nuclear Power School back in 2012. It's hard work and a lot of studying but a pretty amazing "knowledge pump".  You could call it a "people pump" too.  The place does a pretty incredible job of jamming a ton of information into your brain in a short amount of time.  Granted it's all memorization, but it's something.  Definitely something...


“Good morning Sir do you have a cellphone?” “No, no cellphone thank you.”
“No cellphone, Aye.”

It’s the same question every time I walk through the doors of the Rickover Center and the same answer as I feel my pockets to make sure I haven’t forgotten to leave the cellie in the car. It can be tough to leave that car and phone, where I feel more connected with the world outside. Where I could just drive away, call up a friend, and go do something fun. Hiking, kayaking, fishing, hit the bar, anything sounds better than going back into the study prison.

Instead I scan my badge and go to work. The scanning machine greets me with a picture of my face and a summary of my extra hours for the week. On top of the 40 hour work week, extra time is necessary to perform well on the weekly tests given here. Today it reads 7.40 hours. For the ensign signing in behind me, 14.5 hours flashes. I’m not sure if it’s motivation or requirement, but regardless, it’s a hell of a lot of time.

Time at power school is like money. You can never have enough, and you must spend it wisely. As soon as I walk through those doors and scan my badge – I am at work. If I maximize my study hours, hopefully I can get out sooner, and be out enjoying the Palmetto sun and water. I am lucky enough to be able to focus without too much distraction. Those who don’t focus and study well are usually the ones who do more poorly on the tests here. Rated on a 4.00 scale, if one’s GPA is below a certain threshold, they get put on “mandatory hours” often referred to as “Mandos”. Below a 2.50 is considered failing and results in “Tack-5’s”, 5 extra hours a day minimum (except Sunday). Below 3.00 is considered on the road to failing and usually results in at least 10 mandos per week. But if you can bring your score above 3.00, then the administration tends to stay out of your way, and you can study on your own time.

While it’s not Mando, “your own time” for most people usually tops 10 hours anyways. People seem to find a routine after a few weeks. For me, early studying is best. I wake up at 4AM so that I can be at the Rickover doors at 5AM when the building opens. I get 2 extra hours in before the day officially starts at 7AM (and I get to avoid the traffic to get on base in the morning). I have personal Mando hours which require me outside of the building during the afternoon. A bit of sun is good for health, and yes, any given group of Nuke School students is noticeably paler than most.

On top of my 10 hours that I get from morning study sessions, I usually have to put in a little bit more time on Sundays. It averages to about an extra 4 hours, but goes longer for big memorization tests like Materials and Reactor Plant Systems or subjects I struggle in such as Chemistry.

The hours notification always makes my mind churn. How is it that I can devote so much energy to this school? Imagine if I worked this hard at everything in life, or even just at college. I would be a millionaire 4.00 student with a dozen girlfriends and a brain named Britannica. That’s one amazing thing about Nuke School, it really reveals how hard my mind can work. I’ve memorized 80 pages of material in a span of 1 week. I can calculate reactivity for a nuclear reactor due to

all sorts of various situations. We are learning electrical engineering now, and it amazes me the amount of material we cover in the same time span here as we did at UCLA. Who knew a Nuke would have to know how to analyze transistor circuits?

But I suppress these thoughts again, make a left turn at the entrance and head to the ladder well. It’s three flights up to the Officer Deck, which is the only place I am really allowed to go in the building. One side is A-school for enlisted students, where non-designated seamen go to learn a “rate” or job. We are encouraged not to go over there, so I rarely do. I have only been over there a handful of times when our head is secured for cleaning and I REALLY have to piss. The other side is the Power School side, where neutron blow like the wind and Uranium-235 is discussed like politics. The enlisted students inhabit the first and second floors, and the officers reside up top.

My classroom on the third floor of the Rickover Center is little more than a room with lockers, tables, chairs, and a blackboard. The color ranges from white, to off-white, to beige, and the fluorescent lighting casts a hospital-like glow on it all. When the window blinds aren’t down, which isn’t often, I can see the sea of cars in the parking lot below, and the forest beyond. But only if I stand up to actively look. The windows are high enough such that when I sit down, all I really see is the blue sky against a bit of roof in the foreground. Every now and then a bird flies by, what excitement! For our first week there, the window blinds were completely, secured, meaning that they must remain closed for the whole day. What Russian spies and Chinese satellites may be watching me solve reactivity problems over my shoulder?

While it seems that most of the CLASSIFIED material here is stuff I could just find browsing through Wikipedia, it is important for the training environment. The Navy wants its students to learn how to properly handle secret documents. As a result, every piece of paper that we use for work, including notes and flash cards, must be stamped CONFIDENTIAL front and back, top and bottom. All confidential material must have at least one person in positive control of it while it is out, and it must also be locked away and signed for at the end of each day.

To facilitate this, all lockers have a signature sheet, where I must sign each time I open and close the locker, and where the night security watch signs as a double check. Even later at night, a final inspector will wander the classrooms to make sure that all material is properly stowed. If your things are out of order, you get a call a bit after midnight and you must come in immediately to inventory everything and sign off that nothing is missing. Moreover, you will likely pick up some extra night watches to emphasize the importance of information security.

CONFIDENTIAL material must also be properly disposed of. Fire is the way to do this. We have a burn locker whose contents are incinerated every couple weeks. Trash is inspected when it is disposed of at the end of the day to ensure no CONFIDENTIAL material is inside. Again, if you fuck up, you will probably pull extra duty to help you learn the importance of information security. I have jacked things up a couple times, forgetting to sign my locker and once putting CONFIDENTIAL material in the regular trash. Thankfully, my classmates were looking out for me, and noticed my mistakes. I haven’t had to pull any extra duty (yet).

Classmates really help to make everything more bearable. Together, we struggle through the education prison. There are about 30 people in my section, and

we live in that classroom more than 40 hours a week. Throughout the day, teachers come to us, and then leave us to struggle through homework and studying. The homework actually isn’t really too bad. We get daily assignments for each class, which can usually be completed in 30 minutes to an hour. Study hall periods throughout the day help us have time to complete them. If it is the day before a test, the teachers will usually withhold homework from us that day, or at least make it due a day later if assigned.

As I said before, classmates make everything more bearable. It’s nice to have people to share complaints and (small moments of) joy with, and it’s fantastic to have tales of gossip to swap. Between three sections, which make up our class of nearly 100 officer power school students, the rumor mill turns like Seawolf class steam turbine...