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U.S. Navy Nuke School

They come with IQs off the charts and ASVAB scores that number higher than their life expectancy, but that's what a 22-year-old needs to succeed when he's asked to run a nuclear power plant on a U.S. Navy warship

Gibberish. To the average "idiot," this talk is nothing more than gibberish: "Twenty k is 2R and 20k in parallel with 20k is 10k," says the man in a white lab coat, scribbling on a chalkboard as fast as he talks. Twenty-five students look on, seemingly absorbed. "To determine the voltage out we consider that the step is Vin over 3R, times one half to the N, times feedback resistance. N is equal to the number of nodes slash digits; therefore, the Vstep is equal to (Vin/3R)(1/2)n(RFB). Based on that, who knows what the step voltage is?"

A dozen hands go up. For these young men and women - students at the Naval Nuclear Power Command, Charleston, S.C. - the gibberish is decipherable; for them, digital to analog conversion is easy. They could do it in their sleep.

But we digress. Two months earlier most of these dungaree-clad students were in high school. Many of them got satisfaction from $15 lawn mowing jobs or quarter tips on a newspaper delivery route. But now, as they scribe notes on atomic and nuclear physics, it's clear they're preparing for something monumental: an education that will teach them how to run a nuclear power plant aboard a U.S. Navy submarine or aircraft carrier.

AFTER 18 MONTHS OF SCHOOL, THEY ENTER THE SECRET CONFINES OF ENGINEROOMS ABOARD SUBMARINES AND AIRCRAFT CARRIERS AROUND THE WORLD. WHAT THEY DO THERE IS NOTHING SHORT OF WHAT MANY CALL MIRACULOUS...

Yeah, they're way beyond high school math and science now.

EM3 Charles Houston reviews notes during a study hall period at the U.S. Navy's Nuclear Power School in Charleston, S.C. - Official U.S. Navy Photo

"The weight of the digital input is accomplished by a resistance ladder that acts as a current and voltage divider," continues Electronics Technician 1st Class (SS) Charles Bushovisky - a genius in a Sailor's outfit. "Our output equation is going to be a little different. If the inputs are all zero, are these resistors in parallel?"

A seaman's hand shoots up.

BUT WAIT, WAIT! Are you sure you know the answer? Will it be your final answer? Do you want a lifeline? Maybe willing instructors in the lab after class for one-on-one help or a review program on computer available at your leisure? Before you answer, remember that this is for $60,000! You got the first question right when you answered yes to "do I want to join the Navy as a nuke?" and scored the $12,000 reenlistment bonus. But your reenlistment bonus will pay off up to 60 grand! So think hard. This is for the money!

His answer is right, of course. The students here, training to become machinist's mates, electrician's mates or electronic technicians, represent the top 10 percent of the nation's high school graduates.

"The majority of our students are 63 days removed from high school," said CAPT Bill Hicks, the school's commanding officer. "They're bright people who have never been challenged. The importance of what happens to them here is awesome. Graduates of the nuclear program make up only 3 percent of the Navy, but they fit into the top 10 percent of the Navy. I'm very proud of them!"

Hicks and his staff are especially proud, perhaps, of the top grads. Students like Machinist's Mate 3rd Class Robert Kilgore, who dumbfounded the staff with his blistering 99 ASVAB score and 3.95 grade point average, which made him the No. 1 grad in the early part of 2000. "No class in particular was tougher than the rest," said the Tulsa, Okla., native, who even compared the school to his college experience at the University of Arkansas. "The pace is really fast. Studying takes up a lot of your time. You have to put in more time here than you would at college."

They're bright people who have never been challenged. The importance of what happens to them here is awesome. Graduates of the nuclear program make up only 3 percent of the Navy, but they fit into the top 10 percent of the Navy.

Kilgore said he would go to New York to continue his nuclear training, and then report to a submarine.

Based on a student's rate (MM, EM or ET), the initial "A" school varies from 13 to 26 weeks. From there, students go to the more advanced Nuclear Power School in the same building, followed by the six-month Nuclear Prototype School. By that time, enlisted personnel have a knowledge of operation, maintenance and supervision of a naval nuclear propulsion plant.

The Charleston schoolhouse itself is brand new. Opened in 1998, it includes six barracks, a galley called the "refueling complex," an activity center, a central energy plant and a three-story, 250,000 square-foot training center. In June, the 100,000th Sailor will complete Navy nuclear propulsion training, which began more than 50 years ago with the development of USS Nautilus (SSN 571).

"This school is everything a Sailor could dream of," said MM3 Robert Connelly. "I was in the Marines, but then as I got a family, I started looking for other career-orientated jobs. Once I heard about this nuclear school it was a no-brainer."

Chief Electrician's Mate (SW) Michael Mills, a section advisor and former instructor at the school, said part of the attraction of the school is the challenge itself. "This school is very demanding and the pressure to do well is intense; we keep our attrition low with instructors who know their stuff dead cold and are willing to help everyone succeed.

"The best thing we have here is a dedicated staff. If someone comes to you saying they need help, how can you turn 'em down? Anyone of us will bust our butt for 'em."

Mills suggested that the school and the naval nuclear field have a certain standard they live up to. "On carriers [nuclear-trained Sailors] are relied on for just about everything. This job is an endless pursuit of perfection - a mindset. Training is a way of life in the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program."

And it's clear the training has begun here at the Naval Nuclear Propulsion School, and electrode by electrode, node by node, resistor by resistor, the secrets of nuclear power are unfolding.

Information Courtesy of United States Navy

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