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.