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Subject to change by Rudy Yniguez: The elite of the fleet

March 29, 2002

There have been a number of television programs about submarines recently, so I thought I would write about some of my experience in this country's "silent service."

After serving eight years in the Navy, I can look back and say the most difficult aspect was being in the Navy nuclear power program.

I was in class 74-02 at Mare Island. The six-month school started with six weeks of studying math and physics, all day; then there was the homework. Once the regular school began, the topics included math, physics, heat transfer and fluid flow, chemistry, reactor plant theory, reactor plant technology, metallurgy, radiological controls and more.

Each class was divided into 13 sections. The guys in section 13 — at the time only men went to nuclear training — were so smart they actually had time to ask questions. The rest of us just took the information at face value and repeated it back on demand.


The unfortunate thing about section 13 sailors is they frequently didn't know the difference between a box-end wrench and an open-end wrench. They would never understand the concept of applying counter-torque when using a torque wrench.

Many in the lower sections, or with lower grades, attended mandatory night school from 6 to 10 p.m., Mondays through Thursdays and 8 a.m. to noon on Saturday. Although I was only placed on mandatory night school for one night — the day before the final exam — I went in every Monday through Thursday just to do the vast amounts of homework. All of the material was classified and could not leave the school premises.

Upon graduation, I headed to a land-based nuclear power training unit prototype, S1W, in Idaho. The "S" stood for submarine, the "1" for first of its type and the "W" stood for Westinghouse, which developed the plant. A Navy prototype was a nuclear power plant like those aboard ship or submarine, but on land. That way if a sailor makes a mistake, there is no danger of losing a ship with all hands.

The base was called Naval Reactors Facility. S1W was the prototype for the USS Nautilus. In the place of a submarine propeller, or screw, the steam plant turned a wheel within a tank of water. S1W's control rods were inserted for the last time in 1989 and the plant decommissioned.

Prototype training was a six-month school of rotating shift work. Days were 12 hours long, not including the 45-minute drive to and from the facility from Idaho Falls, where most sailors lived. Besides studying the reactor plant's electrical, electronic, hydraulic and steam systems, every day included more math and physics.

Some of the systems we had to study included the reactor core, main coolant, steam system, pressurizer, coolant drain, reactor plant fresh water, nuclear instruments, and on and on and on. When a student thought he knew everything there was to know about a system, he put his name on a list to be quizzed about the system. Only after he had traced the system hand over hand, knew the location by sight of every component of the system, knew every power supply associated with each component — including how the component would "fail" upon loss of its power source — and had drawn the system many times over did the student dare seek such a quiz.

The first question was always, "Draw it." From there, the quiz could go anywhere. Frequently obscure pieces of knowledge were asked. Occasionally an extraordinarily cocky student might be offered a "go, no go" question — a single question, that, if answered correctly, would get the instructor's signature, or, if answered incorrectly, would result in studying the system some more. Go, no goes were to be avoided.

After getting the many signatures required, a student would then be quizzed verbally by a group of instructors on a different shift rotation than his own. This would usually add to the long day and could take a couple of hours. At that exam, every fluid, air or electrical system was fair game. The quiz always ended with an integrated knowledge question. An IK question would be something like this: "You are the auxiliary electrician on watch. A fire breaks out in the electrical panel on the forward machinery flat. What happens?"

The student would then tell the three instructors step by step what would happen based on which electrical components were supplied by that panel, how the loss of power to those components affected their respective systems, and so forth. The answer to this question demonstrated your thorough knowledge of the power plant's systems. Your answer had to include what action you would take, and what actions others might take in response to the casualty.

If you passed the exam, you were allowed to stand watch by yourself. If you failed you had to study some more. When your class moved on from prototype, you got to do it all over again on your submarine or aircraft carrier.

In fact, to this day, nuclear trained personnel repeat the process every time they are reassigned.

Because of all this we considered ourselves the elite of the fleet.

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