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By Rear Admiral W.J. Holland, Jr., U.S. Navy (I
Nuclear power for submarine prog been the best idea for the U.S. N; invention of the first underwati to-McKee-to-DeMars has pr ning combination in keeping
One can best observe how well a ship is maintaining course by watching her wake. Similarly, looking at the performance of the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program over the past decade provides a good indication of where it is going in the decade ahead. In 1982 Admiral Hyman Rickover was retired and the conn shifted for the first time in 34 years. A close observer would probably note that the wake since then seems just as straight as it did in the track of years past, with perhaps fewer rudder movements.
Considering the reasons for this continuity, and thereby drawing some predictions for the future, one should recognize that many of the principles instrumental to Admiral Rickover’s success also underlay many of the procedures and policies of the submarine force well before he came to power. The emphasis on personal responsibility, utterly ruthless internal honesty, and the adherence to carefully thought-out, usually written, procedures were hallmarks of “Rig For Dive” long before there were any nuclear ships.
Concern with safety incubated in the submarine accidents of the 1920s and culminated with the loss of the Squalus (SS-192) in 1939. Out of World War II came an obsession with individual operational excellence, sturdy simplicity in design, attention to the potential effects of battle damage, and the personal knowledge and skills necessary to control and combat it. Intensive training and a thorough understanding of engineering principles inherent in a submarine were demanded of everyone. It was on these foundations that Admiral Rickover built his organization and installed his machinery.
This view does not diminish Admiral Rickover’s achievements. As a dedicated engineer, a skilled political operative, and a consummate bureaucratic manager, he had no peer. Even after the years took their toll on his allies, and the once-vaunted Joint Committee on Atomic Energy disappeared, he continued to wield immense power. The base of that power was the great public confidence in the performance of the Navy’s nuclear-powered ships. Rickover’s successors and his organizations sustain their influence today because of that confidence.
Admiral Rickover established unmatched design and procurement organizations: the Naval Reactors headquarters, Bettis and Knolls Atomic Power Laboratories (KAPL), the Nuclear Power School, Nuclear Power Propulsion Prototypes, and the Naval Reactors Operations Offices. Continuity in personnel through the years—not just the longevity of Admiral Rickover, but of the senior people who worked in these organizations, as well—gave Naval Reactors institutional memory, technical competence, and momentum of purpose unmatched in the U.S. government.
Training became the foundation of all Nuclear Propulsion Program achievements. Programs existed for the staffs of his parent organization, the navy nuclear power prototypes, and the laboratories and procurement agencies. But central and most important was the training of the officers and men who operated the propulsion plants. Six months of schooling preceded six months of practical training on an operating plant. This year included training
in the basic principles of nuclear power and indoctrination into a way of thinking about safety, adherence to strictest standards, and an appreciation of the potential damage that could result from improper reactor operation.
Not content to have the training limited to basic skills, and conscious of the commanding officer’s importance in proper operation and maintenance of the reactor, Admiral Rickover established Prospective Commanding Officer (PCO) training in his own office even before there were any ships to command. Once again he grafted his own design onto the root of an existing system. PCO training was, and still is, intense and demanding for all those officers destined for command—of submarines then, of all ships now.
Finally, a critical element in Admiral Rickover’s ability to take responsibility for reactor safety lay in his control over the selection of those assigned to his program. Personal interviews capped a rigorous process that continues to this day. While no longer a source of controversy, the interviews ensure that the selection standards never become subverted and assure Congress and the public that only those who have demonstrated professional excellence are allowed to engage in this important business. The interview makes this clear to every officer selected for operation and maintenance of a nuclear propulsion plant.
Admiral Rickover’s engineering goals clearly placed safety first. Reliability came next, then economy over the lifetime of the ship. Hand-in-hand with safety went skill in operating the reactor and propulsion plant proficiently. The engineering approach was conservative. Innovation for its own sake was never acceptable, and changes came only when they enhanced operations without compromising his other high standards. Inventions were tested in prototypes ashore before they were incorporated into operating ships.
This engineering philosophy led to one of the greatest success stories of the modern age. When then Captain Rickover went to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, in 1946, no known method existed to obtain useful power from a nuclear reaction. Fewer than 10 years later, the Nautilus (SSN-571) went to sea. Since then, ships and reactor plants have improved steadily. Power and power density have increased. Fuel efficiencies and loading techniques have been enhanced. Refueling once in a ship’s life is an existing capability and core lives equaling ships’ lives are not far away. Most important, Admiral Rickover left a legacy of operational proficiency and engineering safety that remains the paramount feature of the Navy Nuclear Propulsion Program.
This unblemished record of safe and effective operation of nuclear-powered submarines and ships has created and bolstered public confidence in the program and in its leadership. That confidence derived also from the missioneffectiveness of the ships. The U.S. submarine force is one of the most decorated military organizations in the world. “And none of these decorations,” Admiral Kin- naird R. McKee noted, “has been simply for running a reactor properly.”
This success has not been inexpensive. Admiral Rickover invested both in people and money up front. Engi-
peering competence and successful operations have come r°m intense training, unremitting supervision, and unresting attention to detail. The atmosphere of personal resPonsibility for the success of each piece was essential to the synergism of the whole. People at every level and ®very stage believed in what they were doing and knew how to do it—or whom to ask if they did not. This acceptance of personal responsibility was the real reason that the Program’s officers and civilian managers were able to sustain the high standards and keep the organizations Admiral Rickover built running smoothly after he retired. This rive for excellence had created a self-sustaining organiza- t'on in Washington. Similarly, those officers in the fleet responsible for the operation and maintenance of the nuclear-powered submarines and ships were determined to Maintain their record of high performance.
Admiral McKee came to Naval Reactors with his own Set of credentials, some of which Admiral Rickover, for all his long experience, could not match. Few could match h's record as an operator in command. His ship, the USS uace (SSN-607), was a legend in its own time.
That first change of command would weather the storms °1 envy and ambition that surround any major hierarchical change, but this case had the potential to be disastrous, •hough most of the angry and envious who had been Waiting for Rickover to retire” had preceded the event hy their own retirement or demise, there were still plenty °f those who would, if given the opportunity, seek to diminish the role of Naval Reactors and its Director in Particular. The danger that all of Admiral Rickover’s accomplishments might fall prey to envy, confusion, confrontation, and aggrandizement was very real.
The day Admiral Rickover retired, Executive Order *2344 institutionalized the organizational arrangements [hat he had established. The only concession to Rickover hashers was to limit the Director of the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program to a term of eight years. The Director’s dual appointment in the Navy and in the Department °f Energy was affirmed, the grade of the incumbent ordered to be an admiral (although a civilian could be lamed), and the infrastructure assigned to the Director in one of his two capacities. Direct access to the Secretaries °f the Navy and Energy and to the Chief of Naval Opera- hons was assured as well as “ . . . to all other Government personnel who supervise, operate, or maintain naval nuclear propulsion plants and support activities.”1 With the organizational integrity thus safeguarded.
Under Admiral Rickover, intense training became the foundation of the Nuclear Propulsion Program. Here, trainees at the Nuclear Field Class H School in Florida learn the basics of mechanical systems, valves, purifiers, and air compressors.
Admiral McKee proceeded to place the stamp of a skilled operator on the program. He continued the custom of riding initial sea trials on every nuclear-powered ship, even enlarging upon it. But he also visited old submarines in overhaul, new ones in shakedown, ships preparing to deploy, and ships having trouble in training. He listened to commanding officers and gave good advice. He embellished Naval Reactor’s rarely appreciated reputation of caring for the people on the job.
Since the Nautilus prototype, the world’s first operating nuclear power plant, went critical in 1953, Naval Reactors responded quickly to solve problems whenever operations exposed them. The direct interest, technical competence, and demanding nature of the directors hastened effective solutions. Entering the 1990s, with nearly 40 years of experience and close attention to detail, solutions to even the most vexing problems have been developed. Many pertinent phenomena were unknown in the 1950s. For example, methods to measure and control exposure to low-level ionizing radiation were in their infancy when naval nuclear power plants began operation. Every area improved steadily as each problem identified was attacked by incremental design improvements and improved training. This pattern, established under Admiral Rickover, continues.
In the mid-1960s the regular inspection of operating plants shifted from the Naval Reactors staff to the Atlantic and Pacific Fleet Commanders-in-Chief, who conducted the first Operational Reactor Safeguards Examinations (ORSE). These were comprehensive exams that emphasized practical operational competence and understanding of basic principles. They became more and more practical as knowledgeable operators’ influence grew. Any major casualty or near casualty in one ship was sure to be repeated as a drill during the ORSE until every crew had been tested.
Under Admiral McKee’s aegis, this inclination accelerated. “Learn to fight hurt” was his motto, and he preached it regularly in his trips to the home ports of nuclear-powered ships. PCO training concentrated on how machinery worked, and also on how it can or will go wrong. Drills became ever more realistic. An officer who served continuously in nuclear-powered ships from 1965 to the present recently observed, “We expect watch sections to handle things now that we never would have thought of in the 1970s.”2 No diminution in these practical efforts should be expected; the sources of this emphasis are not just Admirals McKee or Bruce DeMars or Naval Reactors’ staff but all those in the chain of command who have experience in nuclear propulsion plant operation. The considerations of reliable operation, ability to reconstitute or repair away from any help and damage control—“to fight hurt”—demand experienced people who know what to do without coaching or instruction.
Crew size drives costs dramatically, so budget architects always exert pressure to reduce them. The practice in the United States since before World War II has been to provide enough people on watch to meet the requirements for immediate damage control. The experience in the loss of the Soviet Mike-class SSN-Komosomolets seems to validate this design to bring people to the scene of a casualty and correct it rather than to try isolating the area and using remote devices to combat the casualty or to salvage the ship. In addition to these damage control considerations, submarines that operate alone and unsupported need to have crew members with a broad range of maintenance skills. Finally, in submarines with long deployments, automation drives crew size up, not down, and increases dramatically the training requirements to support the more complex mechanisms associated with automation.
For these reasons, new classes of submarines are not likely to have substantially smaller crews. And though some automation has been incorporated in submarines and nuclear propulsion plants, simplicity, robustness, and reliability—which have been guidelines since the earliest days of the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program—will probably continue to be driving principles. Engineers and operators in this environment, where the penalty for failure is very high, are suspicious of excessive complexity and afraid of software that is not readily transparent.
Other practices from the earliest years of the Naval Reactors program can be expected to continue with little change. Handling radioactive wastes is one example. The Navy Nuclear Propulsion Program’s splendid record has been the product of the heavy-handed enforcement of rigid standards. No lessening of these standards or oversight should be expected.
Similarly, strict attention to the problem of low-level ionizing radiation, which is just now beginning to gain general attention, has been a hallmark of the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program. The Navy has always been a leader in this area—particularly in shielding, measurement, and records. Early in the program’s existence, Admiral Rickover arbitrarily set limits substantially stricter than those established nationally. His foresight has proved providential, as general standards repeatedly have been tightened, closer to those he mandated.
Nuclear-powered ships have access to more than 150 foreign ports around the world. The basis for this acceptance lies in the public confidence in the splendid record of U.S. nuclear propulsion plants.
The most difficult ongoing challenge will be to maintain qualified crews. Designing, building, maintaining, or operating in a zero-defect environment cannot tolerate mediocrity. The initial investment in quality must be matched by reinvestment of talent into training, maintenance, and inspection assignments. This reassignment policy has been instrumental in the solid safety record and operational improvement of nuclear-powered ships. Teachers in nuclear-related training commands are always among the best operators. This investment results in expertise in both tactical skills and engineering reliability, which is envied and admired by all others. Long and repeated tours yield sailors who know what they are doing because they have
done it often enough.
The submarine practice carried from World War II, whereby the most successful submarine commanding officers became Division Commanders (now “Deputy Squadron Commanders for Readiness”), has had two benefits. The first has been the passing of operational lessons from one generation to the next. Constant improvement in standards of operational ability, tactical competence, and engineering readiness has been the result. The second and more subtle benefit has been the leavening of experience to those who serve in this assignment.
In the next decade, the pressures to substitute joint staff work for experience in the field pose a threat to this legacy of skill and dedication. Though nuclear-trained submarine officers presently are exempt from the requirements of the Nichols-Goldwater Act—to have joint staff tours before they can be selected for flag rank—the Act’s mandates to substitute staff work for operational experience could be very costly to the Navy in general and the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program in particular. In nuclear power, continuity of training and careful supervision by experienced and knowledgeable officers at every level in the chain of command are vital to retaining the skills which in turn maintain the public confidence. As a matter of record, the majority of nuclear-trained flag officers serve a tour fulfilling this joint staff requirement as senior captains or as junior rear admirals.
The relatively easy succession of Admiral Rickover and the utterly smooth transition from Admiral McKee to Admiral Demars demonstrated that the real strength of the Navy Nuclear Propulsion Program lay in the excellence of the people who staff it, not in organizational construction or political influence. The public’s confidence in this organization, its methodology, processes, and system exceeds almost any other government or private enterprise. When Admiral James Watkins was nominated to be the Secretary of Energy, amidst a grave crisis in its weapons production facilities, an editorial in the Washington Post endorsing his candidacy cited his experience as a nuclear- trained officer rather than his service as Chief of Naval Operations and other important positions. In the view of the Post, the “technical sophistication” and “taut selfdiscipline of the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program was the important credential.
Admiral Rickover nurtured this legacy from the soil of the World War II submarine force. Augmented by leadership with an unparalleled operational comprehension, these characteristics have changed little since he retired. They are unlikely to change in the decade ahead.
'This order subsequently was enacted into law as part of the Department of Defense Authorization Act of 1984.
-Capt. John M. Rushing, USN, commanding officer, USS Georgia (SSBN-729) (Blue), November 1989.
Rear Admiral Holland is President of the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association Educational Foundation. He entered nuclear power training in 1959. Except for three tours totaling less than five years, he served in billets associated with the operation, maintenance, training and supervision of naval nuclear propulsion plants until 1985.