Declassified!–The “school” I attended 40 years ago.

S5G prototype

s5g -  2In the spring and summer of 1973, I was a student in Idaho at the Naval Nuclear Power Training Unit, attending the last of three schools before getting assigned to sea duty.

I had volunteered for submarine duty and, luckily, had been assigned for training to S5G, the latest of 3 Navy plants that had been built in the Idaho desert.  S1W had been the test prototype for the USS Nautilus, the first nuclear powered submarine, and A1W had been the same for the Enterprise, the first nuclear powered aircraft carrier.  S1W first achieved criticality in 1953, A1W in 1958.  Since the original engineering crew for the Nautilus had trained in Idaho on S1W as it neared completion and started operating, after the original testing was completed, it was natural that the prototypes were subsequently used for training future navy nuclear enlisted operators and officers .  Today, though, the former prototype test facilities have been decommissioned with their training role taken over by moored submarines with fully operational reactors, yet these modern facilities are known today as prototypes as a result of the several decades long training role of their predecessors.

S5G (Submarine, 5th submarine reactor, designed and built by General Electric) was designed to test early undersea stealth concepts.  The cold war was  intensifying.  The ocean floors had been laid with listening devices for detecting submarines of adversaries. The art of sonar detection coupled with the talents of skilled sonar men became so refined that individual boats could be identified by their unique sound signature. A mission of the S5G prototype was to reduce and, where possible, eliminate noise.

Previous US reactor designs required pumps to circulate reactor coolant through the reactor to the steam generators and back.  Though isolated by sound absorbing mounts, the pumps were a significant source of noise that could potentially be be detected. S5G utilized a design that, at lower power, circulated water through the reactor coolant system without pumps, using the  principle that warm fluid rises and colder fluid drops – a concept called natural circulation. To ensure that the concept and design was viable under conditions that would be experienced at sea, S5G was built inside a segment of a submarine hull in a basin that could be flooded with water.  During testing, test operators used equipment to make the hull rock back and forth. USS Narwhal was the first boat equipped with a reactor that could operate in natural circulation mode.  Modern fleet ballistic missile submarines utilize reactors  capable of operating at a significant fraction of full power utilizing natural circulation.

Proving the Principle, Chapter 10, has a description of the training program and some of how it was developed.  It’s not entirely accurate for the time period when I was there, but it’s close enough.

Rickover’s ideas about the training of nuclear plant operators were controversial within the Navy. He wanted to train a new type of naval officer, unfettered by what Rickover saw as the useless traditions embedded in regular Navy training. On the basis that assuring safety aboard ship required that all ship personnel be able to evaluate potential hazards, Rickover had his way. He established a system of nuclear training schools, and the desert prototype was an essential part of it. Rickover super­vised the preparation of textbooks and ordered that no examinations contain multiple-choice or true-false questions. Tests required essays, definitions, state­ments of fact, or calculations. Homework was required, and since it often involved classified material, trainees had to do it on the premises, not at home.

The controlling philosophy was self-responsibility. Rickover rejected simu­lations in favor of real reactors. “You have to train people to react to the real situation at all times. But if they are trained with a simulator, they tend to expect there will be no consequences,” he said. Rickover didn’t want to train the wrong instincts by using a machine that could not mimic a real nuclear power plant under real-time conditions, including casualties. Computers capable of doing this were not available at the time. Cross-training also was important. Electricians should know mechanical systems, for example. Trainees came to the desert after six months of theoretical instruction from a specialty school elsewhere in the sys­tem. In Idaho a trainee began by pick­ing up—or trying to—a “triple-hernia­-sized” crate of operating manuals, instructions, and schematics.

Using the books and seeking the instructors he needed, the trainee traced every system, component by compo­nent. Enlisted men, no less than offi­cers, learned and used technically accurate vocabulary, no nicknames or shortcuts. Common language tended to level everyone; it wasn’t unusual for a petty officer 3rd class to be instructing an officer. Due to the prevailing Idaho practice—at least in the early years—of wearing civilian clothes, visiting Navy brass from the regular Navy were in for new experiences. An admiral once toured the S1W prototype and then stayed for lunch with his guides. Later he learned who the men were. “Enlisted men! I thought they were college physi­cists!”

When he felt competent in a system, the trainee sought an instructor to examine him and sign his checklist. Mastery gradually produced a long list of signatures. The trainee then stood watch at one of the operating stations in the hull. At first, he was paired with a more experienced mate, but then he himself was in charge. Learn one sta­tion, move to the next. The trainees started the reactor plant, took it up to full power, maneuvered, shut it down, repaired it, maintained it. Although the nuclear program attracted the top two percent of the Navy’s enlistees, some men wiped out, usually because of a failure of self-initiative, not academic insufficiency. There were few second chances. The story is told that one hot summer day, a few sailors took a refreshing but forbidden dip in a cool­ing-water pond on their way home. Caught, they were dismissed.

The period of wearing civvies at work ended before I got there, so I never did get to hob nob with any admirals or other officer types.  I did have the opportunity once several years later, after I had gone back to Idaho as a prototype instructor, to direct some very senior regular Navy officers in starting a steam driven pump.  I think it was part of a program to give non-nuclear officers some orientation on nuclear power operation.

Students in this program were required to work 8 hour training shifts each day of their 7 day shift rotation.  On weekdays, they had to work an additional 4 hours for study.  Because of the long distance from town (~60 miles) and the long work hours, students were prohibited from driving and had to ride the buses.  Students who got into academic trouble were assigned an addition 4 hours on weekdays and had to stay at the site.  A building on site had barracks-like bunking facilities.  I only had to stay out there a couple of times.

Oh, and I was almost one of those guys mentioned above that wiped out.  I had failed a comprehensive written exam, but passed the retake.  Then I failed my oral board.  At that time you could fail the written or the oral, but not both.  Continuing in the program required recommendations from staff personnel and authorization or denial came from Washington.  If authorized to continue, the retake oral board had to be passed.  I took the oral on the last day the class was on site.  The car and moving trailer was packed.  I had orders to a submarine out of New London, Connecticut, if I passed.  If I didn’t, we didn’t know where we would be going.

I passed.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Barry R. Trosper Feb 9, 2014

    I left Shark December 1963 and arrived S5G January 1964 as part of the original crew, long before there was water in the tub, long before a reactor was there.

    Your comments interesting. By default am also a plank owner of the Narwhal (S6G).

    Also interesting your service cannot find an active web site.

    Stay in touch. Barry R. Trosper

    • Mike Feb 9, 2014

      Hi Barry,

      After leaving prototype in September 1973, I served on the Casimir Pulaski, SSBN 633, Blue Crew until spring of 1977, then went back to Idaho as a sea-returnee instructor at A1W. Worked in commercial nuclear after that in Arkansas.

      Thanks for dropping in and commenting.

      • Steve Everett Mar 6, 2017

        Mike, I was on board Pulaski Blue same time as you were on.

        • Mike Mar 6, 2017

          What did you do on Pulaski? I was on January ’74 to April ’77 in M Div, qualifying everything through Engine Room Supervisor, plus throttleman. I also qualified helmsman, planesman, lookout.
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  • Steve Ford Apr 15, 2015

    The most fun part of being in Idaho was that everyone had a gun and a lot of desert to shoot in. I was 19 and you had to be 21 to own a handgun. 18 for a long gun. At the sporting goods store I just walked up to another squid (in ’78 we were easy to spot with our haircuts) and asked him if he was 21 and would he buy this .22 revolver for me? No problem – gave him the money & he bought me the gun. I didn’t even get his name. Still rememember how Grand Tetons looked like you could walk to it in an hour, not a week.

    • Mike Apr 15, 2015

      In 78, I was 26 and back in Idaho as a sea returnee at A1W, Crew D. We had moved to Arco, so it was a 30 minute drive to work, instead of those long ass bus rides.

      Living now in Arkansas, there are at least 3 people that I know from my days in Idaho — they all went to work at the same nuclear plant as I did.
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  • Michael Baker Mar 4, 2017

    I was there in 73 as well. After completing S5G I attended ELT school and then shipped out to USS Halibut (SSN 587).

    • Mike Mar 4, 2017

      After the Casimir Pulaski, I went back to Idaho as an instructor at A1W. If I could have found a job in Idaho comparable to what commercial plants were offering, we probably would have stayed. However, better pay and moving closer to family won out and we landed in Arkansas.
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  • Jamie Thurber Mar 4, 2017

    I was a 7301 S5G student. Did two staff tours at S5G, 76-79 and 84-87. Also did the Trident design school (7901) as a student on my way to the 727.

    • Mike Mar 4, 2017

      One of the other guys from my 7301 machinist mate class at Mare Island, Jerry Brink, ended up on the same crew with me at S5G. Then we ended up on the same submarine, followed by both of us going to A1W as instructors — on the same crew! We both got out of the Navy about the same time, but, while I went into commercial nuclear, Jerry got a job at one of the government plants and stayed in Idaho.
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  • Craig Mar 5, 2017

    I was at S1W, it was a lot of fun. It was the summer of 84, I do remember finding a snake inside the plant floor. I remember asking Movering what I should do with the snake. They thought I was pulling their chains. They scanned the snake and then turned it loose outside. That also was the time they were running security drill. Just remember do not ask a MM repell boarders because he or she will find biggest wrench and knock you out with it. Yes, it did happen so then came the pipe insulation.

    • Mike Mar 5, 2017

      In the two times I was stationed there, I don’t remember any kind of critters inside the fence. I did hear a rumor of some guys dipping mice into liquid nitrogen and flash freezing them during a maintenance outage, but I never saw any evidence of that.
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  • Chuck Beck Mar 5, 2017

    I was an enlisted (mm 3rd class) in 1964 when I entered Idaho to train on A1W. After my 6 months I stayed another 3 months for ELT school. I left Idaho Falls to Hawaii on the USS Danial Boone (SSBN 629) . After seven patrols I went to the Sea Dragon for a short time waiting to be discharged.

    I moved to Bozeman, Montana in 1969 to go to MSU and never left!!

    • Mike Mar 5, 2017

      Bozeman seems to be a great place to live. We’ve been there 3 times in the last 10 years while travelig — each time getting our laundry done and going to Walmart to get prescriptions refilled.
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  • Al Mar 5, 2017

    Great reading this. I was also S5G class 7402 and did ELT school afterwards. Enjoyed every minute in Idaho and this prototype.

    • Mike Mar 5, 2017

      Thanks Al! We loved Idaho. Between being stationed there as a student and, later, as staff, we lived in Idaho about 4 years and have been back several times since we left in 1980.
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  • Gary Christopher Mar 6, 2017

    Went to A1W in June 1978 as MO Trainee, class 7802. Graduated December 78, then ELT school. Went to USS Lafayette in April 1979, did 4 patrols, then RADCON on sub tender L.Y. Spear (AS 36). Commissioned USS Alabama (SSBN 731) in 1985, did two patrols out of Bangor, WA. Recruiting from 87-90, then two years on USS Key West (SSN 722). Finished up a career in QA on Emory S. Land (AS 39). Got out, went back to school, and now work as a college professor in Iowa.

    • Mike Mar 6, 2017

      Gary, You would have been a student at A1W when I was there as staff. I was on crew D and, for a good part of that time, I was MTPO (Mechanical Training Petty Officer). I’m just not sure what that time period was. I’m still working in commercial nuclear, now as a contract instructor, going in later today to run the simulator that I was a “plank owner” of back in the mid 80s.
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      • Gary Christopher Mar 6, 2017

        I was also on Crew D. The one instructor I truly remember was Paul Pattison. We served together later on the Alabama Gold – I was MLPO and he was 3M Coordinator.

        • Mike Mar 7, 2017

          The Pattison I remember from Crew D was Ralph Pattison. He lived in Arco and was one of the people that I carpooled with. He was the first person I knew to actually have a VCR. He was married to a woman who was in the Air Force, stationed at Mountain Home AFP. Coincidentally, she had graduated from the same Houston area high school as me, but several year later.
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  • Randy Atchley Mar 6, 2017

    I did my initial training over at S5G and then came back as staff at S1W. We wound up doing the decom on S1W at the end of my sting there. Good article and probably one of the best training programs. Served on 4 submarines otherwise.

    • Mike Mar 9, 2017

      Thirty years ago, we based our training program at the power plant I retired from largely on what we had in the Navy, down to and including qual books with perform, simulate, or discuss signatures.
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