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« Mid-way Review of Head First XHTML/CSS Book | Main | U.S. Naval Nuclear Power School | An Inside Look - Part II »

United States Naval Nuclear Power School | An Inside Look - Part I

United States nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarineThe Wikipedia entry for the U.S. Naval Nuclear Power School says » "It is regarded as one of the most difficult academic programs in the world."

The phrase in the world caught my attention.

Never quite sure how much I can (or can't) say .. cuz the curriculum is comprised, largely, of material labeled confidential (with a big red stamp). I'm sure I'll get a call if I say too much.

Much has already been written. Official NPS web site » here. I was enlisted, but the website for the officer's version of same program is » here.

"Nuke school" was located in Orlando when I went (back when dinosaurs roamed the earth). Navy moved it to Charleston in (uh .. not sure the year .. probably mid-to-late '90's).

Biggest thing I remember (in looking back, reflecting) is the ego .. associated with being 20 years old, flying to Hawaii .. to run a reactor plant on a billion-dollar nuclear sub (the ultimate in WMDs).

And the Navy trains well .. best program of its kind .. due to a combination of Uncle Sam's unlimited budget (as reactors tend to be expen$ive) and Rickover's guiding influence ...

••••• today's entry continues below •••••

.. actually, "over-train" is probably a more accurate description .. point being » when they send you off, you have no doubts about your ability to do the job. So the 20-year-old ego is unrestrained.

The reason for that ego » comes from the sense of accomplishment (pride?) you get from knowing you just completed something difficult .. such as a scaling a wall .. one which many could not get over .. and one which tested you personally. And from knowing yourself a little better, as a result.

Sub Life

You don't hear very much about US Navy nuclear subs (in the news) .. cuz they don't make many blunders, despite logging many days underway every year .. year after year. (And that's no accident.)

Worst part of the job » the hours .. especially if you were assigned to an older boat (like I was) .. which needs more tender loving-care than the newer ones .. you log some brutal hours .. basically *living* with a reactor plant (intimately).

Could never work those hours now (90-hour work weeks, often 35 hours straight). Would kill me. When you're 20 years old however, you're damn-near invincible.  If we had to stay up 2 days to get the job done .. oh, well. That's what we did.

I used to argue that they couldn't expect someone to operate a nuclear plant reliably with/on no sleep. Seems like we were always short of people. "Nobody's ever *died* from lack of sleep," they told us. (How comforting.)

Military vs Commercial

Commercial plants limit you (via NRC regulations) to 72 hours/week (which I could do standing on my head after spending 6 years in the Navy) .. never more than 16 hours in a row. Navy had no such limits. "Limits are for wimps," they told me. The idea is » We'll do whatever it takes.

After getting out, I worked 72 hours a week (in the commercial nuclear industry) for *years* .. and felt like I was on vacation. Never even broke a sweat. (Made buckets of ca$h, too .. with little time to spend it. Paid ca$h for a Porsche.)

Most people ask about the confinement. Nuke subs are so big (a number I probably shouldn't mention) that you never feel claustrophobic.

A big plus » you work with some sharp hombré's .. so you're never lacking intellectual stimulation (a source of entertainment). Our Captain, for example, was a Rhodes Scholar.

Much to Say 

Anyway, this is a topic with which I have much experience, so I could go on-n-on. If you've been Radified very long, you know I've discussed some of my nuclear experiences before, in posts such as .. »


Heard the Navy has to enlist 7 people for every *one* who makes it to the end of a standard 6-year enlistment .. that between day 1 (of boot camp) and day 2192 (end of 6 years), 6 out of 7 people fall by the way side. Not hard to conceive.

The pace is fast-n-furious (like drinking water thru a firehose). Many can't keep up. Those who have trouble maintaining their GPA are sent to Academic Review Boards, where sympathy plays no part (ruthless). Perform or be gone is their guiding principle.

Attrition is steady & relentless. Friends disappear overnight, one after the other, sent off to "conventional" (non-nuclear) ships.

Two-five & Survive

Regarding the GPA's importance, the phrase "Two-five and survive," became popular .. usually paired with » "Two-eight and skate." Anything above 3.2 means they left you alone (no mandatory study hours .. called "dink hours" .. as in "delinquent").

My GPA hovered around 3.4. (By comparison, my college GPA is a near-perfect 3.9x .. with 3 B's, the rest A's .. notta single C on my transcripts. All my B's were borderline A's.) Dink hours suk (had to sign-in, sign-out).

Each classroom started with 40 students. My particular class had 13 such classrooms (for a total of 520 students). The smartest kids were assigned to section #1. I was assigned to section 6 (the coolest, of course).

I was never at the top of my class, but always in the top 10 (usually the top 5 or 6), which meant they left me alone.

Sections 11, 12 & 13 didn't finish with many students. Sad. These guys struggled. Some had families. They tried hard. Once you fall behind, you're a goner. It's only a matter of time. As time passed, they consolidated the stragglers from these sections into those remaining from section 10.

Tests are a big part of life at NPS. They test you on everything. You get good at taking tests, cuz you do it so often. You quickly learn the "key words and tricky phrases" they want to hear. Those who have trouble taking tests have no hope of surviving.

I often woke dreaming about formulas (most distressing, since we spent all day studying this stuff).

The school in Orlando was shaped like a giant control rod (sort of like the capital letter 'Y').. these are the things that move in and out of the reactor core .. to control reactor power.

[Control rods have the ability to absorb neutrons. As rods go further into the reactor core, more neutrons are absorbed .. thus lowering reactor power. Conversely, when you "pull rods" (out of the reactor core) less neutrons are absorbed, and reactor power increases.]

Rickover Interviews

Like I said, I was enlisted, but *every* officer in the program was personally interviewed by Rickover (longest-serving active-duty military officer in U.S. history). Students always asked our instructors at NPS (who were all officers) to share their experiences of their interviews with the admiral.

Some related stories how Rickover asked them a question, then said, "That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard," .. and instructed them to go stand in the closet to think about their answer. =D

The guy was a tyrant, who established a gestapo-like system of oversight & enforcement .. but hey, it worked.

Continued in Part II 

Today's entry grew larger than I'd expected. So I broke it in half (in two parts), and posted Part II here » U.S. Naval Nuclear Power School |An Inside Look - Part II



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Comments (36)


In case the Wikipedia entry is ever altered, here's a screen-shot, taken today >

http://radified.com/gfx2/nps_wiki.gif (52-KB).

Kamikaze Bob Class7407:

Just came across these postings; didn't know about this site. MMA School Great Lakes 1973, Class of 7407 Bainbridge, West Milton SG1 Prototype (Ballston Spa), then USS Truxtun DLGN35. Spent 8.33 years as MM, ERS, Training PO, etc, the usual. Although I'm a member of Mensa, my experience at NPS and NPTU were stressful. Went on to work as a Principal Startup Engineer and Procedure Test Engineer for various Commercial Power Plants throughout the US, from 1981 to 1995. Subcontracting jobs were few and far between by 1995, so I left the field for a change in scenery. Happy to hear about other nukes. Advice for you NEW Nukes, just tough it out thru school.
Just ordered 2 books on NPS and 2190 Days from Amazon.
Live long and Prosper.

Iceman class 9806:

Just happened to be browsing around, and stumbled onto your site. It's always interesting hearing/reading about fellow ex-nukes out there in the world either shaking things up and bringing home the cheese, or falling back into the comfortable daily routine of the lives they left behind when they first joined the Navy. I was never studious as a kid, so I have to agree that the training pipeline (minus A-school) was some of the most difficult times I've been through. I distinctly remember only taking a dinner break after class, just to run back to get a few more hours in before 12am when they kicked everyone out. I took Friday afternoons off as a breather, and was back in the classroom for a few good hrs on Sat and Sun, just to start it over again the next week. It was probably a blessing that I was too young to drink back then. I have to say the hardest part of all those exams was that it was completely in written form...Word of caution to aspiring nukes out there...be sure of your abilities to memorize chapters of technical information word for word, as there are no multiple choice questions in the nuclear navy.

Steve Moore:

Great blog. I went in 2 weeks out of high school and stayed 20 years plus change. Nuc school was tough but I never failed a class. I agree with the guy who mentioned the ability to memorize. That is how I made it through. All those years in church school memorizing large chunks of scripture (which I never applied until later in life btw) prepared my mind for the rigors of NNPS study. I don't think I understood that much but sure could remember the formulas et all. I am really glad I made it through, it does give some confidence.

R. Whitehead:

Your blog brings back a lot of memories. I was a section #1 ET an NPS Orlando back in 1984. We studied like crazy, but always took time off from Friday afternoon through Sunday morning. I spent many Saturdays with buds at Daytona Beach. We then studied all day on Sunday getting ready for the week. Did prototype training on the S8G plant in Ballston Spa, NY, and then went out west. Did 3.5 years on the USS Pollack (SSN 603), where I was part of the decommisioning crew. Never stepped foot in a power plant after discharge. Mainly working in high tech fields. Even though I now have an MBA, it doesn't compare to the mental demands of the nuke program.

Sergio Ortiz:

I'd have to question the characterization of NNPS as one of the toughest academic programs in the world. This was no doubt written by someone who went through it and who had never experienced anything like it, and while it is definitely intense, it's short. It seems to me that med or law school, or even an engineering program at a top-flight engineering school, is much tougher than NNPS.

And I just have to comment on the ridiculous military tendency to classify everything. There was absolutely nothing in those textbooks worthy of secrecy, except maybe for the specifications of certain nuclear plant systems (such as the heat capacity of a HX) which could be used to infer the heat output of the reactor and thus its power and thus the ship's speed, but even that's a stretch considering the accurate information on ship's speed (and depth) available through Jane's or similar resources.

Claire Berube:

I am looking for anyone who was in the Navy with Todd Breed, who was part of his graduating NNPS class, who worked with him in the Peace Corps, or who knew him during his time with NASA in Moscow (1994-1997). My email address is cmberube@yahoo.com.

Derek Schoenke:

Iceman, what's your name? Class 9806


Do NF enlistees have to learn/use calculus in either nuke A school or nuclear power school? If so, through what level in terms of college classes (i.e. calc 1, calc 2 (integration), calc 3 (multi-variable), etc.) are taught there? Thanks a lot.

Also, what are going to get your degree in?



My degree (BS) is in Radiation Protection. The Navy teaches you ONLY what parts of Calculus they feel you really need. I actually recall my Chemistry class more clearly .. in that the first third was familiar. (I'm talking about the 7-unit Chemistry for engineers and doctors .. the one with a lab.)

With calculus, most of it was new to me. I mean, I knew how to take a derivative, and the principle behind taking a derivative, but not much more.


Thanks a lot for answering my questions so quickly. I like reading about what it's like from someone who has actually done it.

I was curious about the math because I'm a college senior, and I've been giving the Navy a lot of consideration. I wanted to enlist because I don't have the engineering background to go to nuke school through the officer program. But after reading what you wrote, I don't know if I'll be up to it--I got a C in my weed-out chem class (the one that engineers and pre-meds take).


Great synopsis! A few comments...I was in class 8007 (Orlando) class #5. When I went #1 class was for those scoring lowest during pre-nuke school, class #14 was for those scoring highest. I deeeeeply regret not applying myself to all levels a little more. But hey, I was 18 and partied like there was no tomorrow, bought a '67 mustang, passed, and went on to the Big 'E' (I am very claustrophobic, submarines would have been hell).

In my post-navy adventures I was accepted into the University of Natal (South Africa) only after convincing the Chemical Engineering Professor I was an ex-Navy Nuke. He felt American High School would not prepare me for school. In fact, I was allowed to take the second calc-based physics course (electronics, etc.) before the first course (I would have had to wait a year). I was the only A in the entire class. NPS graduates are elitists. For a reason. Anyway, great blog.

Michael Coats:

8007....hey...I was in that class....section 6.

Great blog. Sure brings back memories. Been out since 1988, but I can say some of the brightest men I have known were in the program.

Danial Roberge:

Class 8007 also. MM section 11.

Went to USS SOCAR after power school.

Did 6, got out and have had a six figure + (and I mean +)income since.

Bill Peed:

NPS Class 7203 Bainbridge, Maryland

Prototype training NPTU Idaho Falls, Idaho A1W

Staff pickup

ERS, EWS, EOOW qualified MM

Served 24 years

Nuclear power training and the experience I gained in the Navy nuclear program made me what I am today. Today I teach refueling engineers who oversee the refueling of Nimitz class aircraft carriers at Northrop Grumman Newport News Shipbuilding. It was the best thing I ever did with regard to training for my future.

Jim hayes:

Class 8007, mm, section 1(lowest section), any other rocks out there?

Keith R. Reynolds:

Nuc School Class 7201 Mare Island,CA: MMCS(SS) Retired (1990) USS Nautilus SSN 571, USS Stonewall Jackson SSBN 634, USS California CGN 36, USS Yellowstone AD-41

For me NUC school was the toughest academic experience of my life. After Nuc School, I got (2) Bachelors degrees, (2) Masters degrees and a PhD and nothing was as tough as Nuc School.

The greatest experience of my life.


I was in class 8504, MM, 10 years. I loved the classes, challenge and graduated with an overall 3.4x from the school. Prototype was even better in Idaho A1W. I did not care for the navy life or sub duty, which is why I got out at 10 (they wanted to send me back to a sub).

I can tell you after going to a very good (and some say difficult) engineering school where I received my BS and MS in Mechanical (3.9 gpa) and Computer Engineering, NNPS was the hardest thing I ever did in my life. Everything else is simple by comparison.

Patrick Buchanan:

8104 section 9 MM. those were some good times. 18, '72 454 vette, daytona, new smyrna...oh, and the best education too.


7804 and I got a field commission from Adm Rickover about six weeks to go. I never knew who he was until after when my LPO, not all instructors were officers then, told me. I immediately drew fire from both enlisted and officers. I can tell you this, the navy is one big fraudulent clique. You guys ought to know it too. You mentioned attrition rates being high. Did you realize how many went out in caskets? I kept track up until the second half and I stopped counting at 14. They tore the place down because it was becoming a draw for all the families that wanted to see where their sons died. No Bull. I even returned years later to get closure. Knowing what I know I can only say this, there are two sides to every coin and the Navy keeps the dirty side hidden and the pentagon lawyers are strong arm thugs.

Whoa, thats huge.


Jack, I've barely scratched the surface. My complaint and investigation was documented by the local DAV chapter that took an immediate action to set things right. Interstingly, they were well aware of the antics but saw a chance to strip a pound of flesh from the SOB's. Not one single head rolled. A massive cover up went down. A deal was cut and guess who got the short end of the stick? I'll live the rest of my life knowing that my government should never be trusted, period.

BTW, Rickover was very interesting and never rude. The most striking question he asked was if I believed in God.The exchange that followed was direct and as a scientist, open and rational. My final answer got a smile, a pat on the shoulder and "that's all I needed to hear". I'll leave it to the reader to figure out what he liked. If you knew him you know what he wanted to hear.

steven rector:

ya, nuke school made my education as a clinical labaratory scientist seem like kindergarden. I literally felt that university classes were an utter joke (with the exception of some chemistry classes) compared to nuclear field classes. If a man can complete any of the 3 ratings through nuke school and prototype, he can do anything in life.

ELT in the 80s:

I was in NNPS class 8305 in Orlando, section 12 (14 being the highest). After dropping out of college after 2 years (too hard and too much partying), I enlisted into the program. I skated through high school on athletics and never learned to study (I got C's without even trying - lol). Nuke school was a total eye-opener for me. It taught me to study, and created self discipline. I then went to Ballston Spa for prototype, and on to ELT (Engineering Laboratory Technician) school. I then went on to the Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) for the precommissioning and its maiden voyages. My 6 years in the Navy definitely formed the foundation for who I have become. After the Navy, I received my MS degree in Radiation Physics from an Ivy League School, and will say that though Nuke school was short (6 months), it was more intense and demanding than my Masters degree. I don't want to scare anyone....just want you to know what to expect.


Been reading all about how hard nuc school is. Can someone point out some resources or memory techniques that would help get through nuc school? Thanks.



ELT Hall of Fame Class of 8305:

Nuclear Power School was one year back in 1983. Six months in Orlando and six months in IF. Some officers would get a few extra months if they failed the final exam. I obtained three engineering degrees after I got out of the Navy. There were more deaths, people losing their memory, and having psychotic episodes in the one year in Nuclear Power School than in all the years I attended college. I would pay the $50,000 a year to send an above average student to private school instead of sending him to Nuke School. There is little empathy in Nuke school for the average. However, in private school, $50,000 goes a long way in obtaining a degree. I just wish that Engineering Schools and Medical Schools would teach more like they do in Nuke School. Many engineers and doctors are very careless leading to tons of litigation for Lawyers. If I gave the average engineering student in college one good two hour Nuke School test, they would fail. The college students can't explain what they should know. In college I saw students crying after final exam and they came back the next semester. In Nuke school I saw people crying and cursing after a weekly exam and they were never seen in Nuke School again. I would love to go back to college. I would never go back to Nuke School even though I graduated at the top of the class. I would rather make more money being a Doctor.

Mike Brothers:

I was an ensign in class 76007. We had three sections and I was the section leader of section 1.

I recall Orlando fondly and have gone on to spend my entire career in commercial nuclear power after getting out on 1 October, 1980.

I have been Site VP at two stations (Millstone in CT and Salem - Hope Creek) in NJ.

Time has gone by way too quickly since those (relatively) carefree days of Nuclear Power School and Prototype (S1C for me).

I was an EM in Warnock's Warrior's(scram the reactor, its Miller time!) Section 14 out of 16(I believe, it has been 30 years)class 8305. Some of the smartest people I've ever met, particularly Brian Roschli, who I've not been able to keep up with, and Streige, who I knew from boot camp. Never will forget Ensign Dalrymple


Your passage about the control rods "pull out to increase power, push in to lower power" is a GCE (gross conceptual error) After critical, they adjust Steady State temperature, steam demand controls power.

Bill Hunter:

8801 Orlando/Ballston Spa

Heh, just came across this site. EM here, surface and radcon.

Reading some of the replies and posts here brings back memories (some were even good).

Definitely agree on the ease of civilian life comparatively, have not been stressed ever by work since the Navy.

I had to laugh when I read the post that Sergio Ortiz made, obviously an idiot with a GCE about reality.

Thanks for the blast from the past...


I was about to say what Jeff said... GCE... Rod height controls Tave... Day one right there.

I was an MM in class 9306 and one of the last classes that were men only (I believe the class right behind me was first with women). I was a volunteer hours guy. Never really struggled much in nuke school. Was section leader in A school and classroom leader in nuke school and prototype. Went to Balston Spa for prototype, S3G. I was a "hot runner" in prototype. Finished first by a long shot, in 4 months and a month before the next guy qualified. Got picked up for the naval Academy right out of prototype. I did two years and left (2 years free college). The Academy was an academic joke compared to NNPS. I tested out of thermodynamics and heat transfer and fluid flow sophomore year. The professor said she didn't think my nuke school experience would allow me to test out but she gave me the semester final exam anyway. Without studying I aced it and she gave me the credit. Tested out of calc 1 as well. Even though I was an MM I decided to go Electrical Engineering as my major and when I transferred to another University after getting out of the Navy I continued electrical engineering (paid for with my GI bill) but changed to computer engineering concentration. I've been in the aerospace industry for over 15 years including working in the nasa manned space program designing spacecraft power and computer electronics. Through all of that I've never done anything as stressful or grueling as NNPS. There's no preparing for it (outside of maybe getting an engineering degree first). Either you got it or you don't. And you'll never know if you got it until you do it. But when you get through it, you know that you can do anything. Not 'think' you can, know you can.

Marvin Hadley:

Of course NNPS was hard. I wish someone would have told me that before signing up, but then I might have changed my mind. Class 8007, Section 6 in Orlando, then prototype at MARF in New York, then ELT school, then the Eisenhower. Truly a life changing experience. Honorably discharged after 6 years. Now, I work overseas and do not lack for funds.
NNPS was the hardest thing I have ever done. It was about week three when I received a 2.8 on a math test (and I thought I was good at math) and decided to buckle down or fail out. I buckled down, worked hard, and made it out with a 3.6 average, but it was far from easy. In 1980 we had no calculators, no computers, and no handouts. The instructor wrote on the chalk-board and you copied it into a spiral notebook. All calculations were “hand-cranked” and all tests were essay (no multiple guess). I am sure it is a little different now. Best of luck to whoever decides to try Nuke school. It is quite an accomplishment if you make it through. Just know that you are in a special place and work harder than you have ever worked and you may make it.


MM, class 6501Mare Island, A1W prototype. Anyone remember Doc Rancher and his 300 Weatherby Mag?



Sailordude 1980s:

Thanks for the insight! I was "nuke waste," I failed the final in Orlando. I was able to avoid the extra study throughout the 6 months. I went before a board and they were not impressed with my answers so I went back to more A and C schools for a conventional ET. I saw my first ship after 2 1/2 years of training. Not to burst your bubble of accomplishment but just so you know, a LOT of the people getting dropped from nuclear power school didn't want to be there and may have failed intentionally. We learned more and more about those long hours and changed our minds. I let the recruiter sign me up for the nuke program but made sure I was guaranteed the ET rating when enlisting as that was really all I wanted. I'm so happy I did that at age 17 or else I would have probably been an MM or EM. If that had happened, I would have made sure I passed and stayed in the nuke program so I could get those big bucks in a civilian job. As an ET vet, I was still able to make big bucks (at 40 hours a week) so it worked out well for me.

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