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US Navy Nuclear Propulsion Officer Candidate (NUPOC) Program "The Best Deal in the Navy?"

Keegan Leary
Keegan Leary

It's difficult to find information out there about what is often touted as "the best deal in the Navy."  That's unfortunate, as the 5 year commitment is nothing to throw any old cat at.  Folks ought to know what they are getting into.  Pre-COVID time, The Navy had a great and FREE educational tour, or VIP trip, where prospective candidates got flown to San Diego (west coasters) or King's Bay (east coasters) to tour active nuclear submarines and conventional surface ships in an effort to help them make an informed decision.

Since that trip not currently longer available, and I've been in the business a while now, I figured I should try and get some of what I know out there for anybody going through the same decision process that I went through back in 2009.  I joined the NUPOC program in my junior year at UCLA while I was working towards my Bachelor's Degree in Electrical Engineering.  Originally just planning to do my 5 years and get out, I have now been in the Navy for over 10 years and can honestly say it's been the adventure of a lifetime.  I am so glad to have made the decision, though I have to be clear - there were times I probably wouldn't have said that.  The job is NOT easy!

The following will be an FAQ-style write up on what I think about the NUPOC program and how I normally talk about it with a prospective candidate.  With more than 2 years of Navy officer recruiting under my belt, I've spoken with folks from many different backgrounds about it and I always try to impart this advice first: the decision is your own, and you are responsible for getting as much information as you can such that your decision is an educated one.  I imagine that's why you're here, so let's get started.

🤷‍♂️ What is the NUPOC program?

At the time of writing this, the Navy operates roughly 100 nuclear  power plants across the world.  71 submarines each of which is powered by 1 reactor, 11 aircraft carriers each of which is powered by 2 reactors, and a handful of training reactors (old subs) and other reactors in the process of coming online or being decommissioned.  While the national sentiment on nuclear energy is quite low, the Navy's appetite for more submarines and aircraft carriers is exceptionally high.  I may be partial, but if you ask my XO who's a helicopter pilot (Executive Officer is the officer who is second in command), he would tell you that in his extensive studies and analysis of national security at the War College, submarines are our #1 asset for national defense for reasons he can't tell you or he would have to kill you. 😛

So, now that we know the Navy has nuclear reactors and they are important, we must understand that the Navy needs to EMPLOY people to operate and maintain those reactors (and of course the submarines and carriers that they power 😆.  Sometimes we forget that).

In general, the Navy needs enlisted personnel to operate the equipment (Nuclear-trained machinist mates, electricians, reactor operators, and lab technicians) and officers to provide supervision, strategic planning, and incident response.  As you might have guessed, these jobs require a unique blend of smarts, leadership, and confidence that is difficult to find.  Individuals who meet the Navy's requirement for nuclear-trained jobs often have a world of opportunity available to them.

Enter the NUPOC program.  At the most basic level, NUPOC is a way for the Navy to compete with the private sector for smart people.  The Navy pays a sizable stipend to college students who meet the minimum requirements in exchange for committing to 5 years as an active duty nuclear-trained officer after graduation.  It's similar to ROTC in that it is a means of getting money while studying and a commission upon graduation, but is significantly different in many ways, most notably there are no extra classes required, no uniform requirements, and the money goes directly to your checking account like a salary and not to tuition like a scholarship does.

I did Army ROTC for 2 days when I was at UCLA and it definitely wasn't for me at the time.  I was pretty laser-focused on partying and my outdoor backpacking/climbing club.  Somehow found time to get circuits and digital signal processing homework done.  0530 PT (physical training) and extra classes weren't appetizing menu items for me at the time.

👨‍💼 What jobs can you do if you are accepted into NUPOC?

There are 4 jobs available, they are: Nuclear Surface Warfare Officer (SWO), Submarine Warfare Officer, Nuclear Power Instructor, and Naval Reactors Engineer (NRE).  The career path is different for each job which I will cover later on.

For ease of understanding, I divide the 4 jobs into two categories.  The first category is Fleet, or Unrestricted Line Officer.  SWO and Submarine Officer fall into this categories.  For now think of these as operational roles where you are "attached" to a ship or submarine and directly responsible for mission accomplishment.  Like in the movies, you will give orders, lead sailors, and strategize missions.  You essentially would be the Lieutenant in Hunter Killer that Gerard Butler, who plays the Commanding Officer, addresses when he comes down from the bridge and says "Last man down, hatch secured, Officer of the Deck, submerge the ship."  Yup, the Officer of the Deck is 24 year-old you.  Play the game for roughly 16 more years and you get to BE Gerard Butler.  The career progression for an Unrestricted Line Officer is designed to culminate with major command, though may be shorter or longer depending on performance and also what direction your life takes you.

The second category is Support, or Restricted Line Officer.  This category covers the Instructor position and the Naval Reactors Engineer position.  As an instructor, you would teach at either the nuclear power school or prototype (training reactor) based in Charleston, South Carolina.  This is the school that we send every nuclear-trained enlisted and officer individual through.  As a Naval Reactors Engineer, you work at an office building on a Navy base in Washington, DC called the "Navy Yard".  You are a commissioned officer but usually wear business casual dress to work.  Think of this job as a technical program manager role where are responsible for all major technical decisions regarding design, procurement, operations, maintenance, training, and logistics of all of the reactors that the Navy has in service.  You work closely with the prime contractor, Bechtel Plant Machinery, Inc., Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory, the ships and subs, and the shipyards to ensure maximum readiness and safety of the nuclear power plants.  I call these folks the "velcro shoes" of the navy.  If you don't get the joke, then you probably would make a great NRE! 😂

✅ What are the requirements to join NUPOC?

Minimum requirements are outlined in the Program Authorizations.  At the time of writing:

  1. Must be a U.S. Citizen (for your Top Secret Security Clearance).
  2. At least 19 years old and no older than 29 by the time of commissioning.
  3. Must have at least 1 year (2 semesters or 3 quarters) of college-level calculus and calculus-based physics with a grade "C" or better.

These are minimum requirements.  Waivers are available if your degree plan doesn't require calc/physics or for ages up to 31.  Honestly waivers are available for just about anything if you are the right fit for the program.  Additionally, AP courses may be used as credit for half of the calc/physics requirements.

Now on to what a competitive profile looks like:

  1. For Fleet (Submarine or Surface) positions GPA > 3.2.
  2. For Instructor GPA > 3.5
  3. For Naval Reactors Engineer GPA > 3.7 🤓
  4. SAT Math score > 680 and/or ACT >= 30


The Navy

Keegan Leary

10 years in the Navy as a Nuclear Submarine Officer. Soon to be be Naval Reservist. Fitness, Books, Cooking, and Coding.