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By Theodore Rockwell
One of the Admiral’s former right-hand men tells how the tactics of Rickover and his staff influenced candidates for the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program
U.S. NAVY (W. v
As each nuclear-powered ship approached the date of initial criticality, her skipper knew he would soon experience a Naval Reactors Crew Quiz. This was part of the process by which Rickover satisfied himself, and then reported to the U.S Atomic Energy Commission, that the training and the performance of this crew were up to the standards necessary to start up a nuclear reactor and take it to sea. This would not be the only such inspection, but it would be the first on the ship, and the skipper would have done everything he could to get ready for it. A typical crew quiz ran about as follows: First, a call came from Bob Panoff, Rickover’s submarine project officer, and the inspection was scheduled for a Friday night, to continue on into the weekend, as long as it took.
Panoff, Jack Grigg, and I made up a typical team for those early inspections. Grigg was Rickover’s instrumentations and controls expert, I had the title of technical director. . . .
Panoff started right in. “I want to get right into this. We have a long evening ahead of us. As I think you heard, we had one crew quiz on the prototype, and we interviewed the people alone so they wouldn’t be intimidated by the presence of their officers. But then the officers had trouble believing that their people had done so badly. The officers didn’t say so, but it was clear that they were convinced their men had all the answers and we must have tricked them or asked misleading questions. So tonight I’m asking your permission to have one or more of you present for all of the questioning. That way you’ll be able to judge the results firsthand. Do you have any objection to that?”
The skipper replied, “No problem. I’m confident about our state of training, and if there is anything wrong, I want to see it myself.”
Panoff continued. “Fine. Despite what you may have heard, it’s not our purpose to terrorize your people. This is a technical quiz, not a psychological one. We’ll keep the questions straightforward, and the men can ask for clarification without prejudice. But we expect them to know the technical material thoroughly. I’m sure you’ve heard Admiral Rickover say that any one detail, followed through to its source, will usually reveal the general state of readiness of the whole organization. Take the spare parts system, for example. The way parts are inventoried, stored, accessed, and reordered can be quite revealing ot the whole organization.” He pulled a little widget out of his pocket and asked, “Do you know what this is, Cap' tain?” The skipper and his engineer looked at it carefully’
“Do you use these on this ship?”
The engineer was ready with an answer, “Yes, sir. It’s a . . Not waiting for a reply, Panoff asked, “How long would it take to get another one? Here, in the wardroom.” “They’re stored in the yard, sir. Over in Siberia—one of the new buildings at the north end of the yard.”
“Oh, I suppose we could have one within the hour.” “And if it were an emergency?”
“Half an hour, sure.”
Panoff looked at his watch and said simply, “Go!”
“I beg your pardon?”
“You now have 29 minutes, 55 seconds left.”
“Yes, sir!” The engineer jumped to his feet and ran out the door.
The skipper wanted to insert a caution. “It’s late Friday evening, you realize. He may have trouble getting the right people at the yard. They keep all that stuff under heavy security.”
“Can you guarantee that you won’t have any emergencies on weekends, Captain?”
“No, sir. We may have to change our arrangements with the yard to handle things like this. Mr. Rockwell, I’ve been thinking about that radiation drill you pulled on the Prototype last week. They phoned us about it. You had them take wipe samples on various surfaces, and they found high radioactive contamination. So they called a radiation alert. But you told them to go outside and check the hoods of some parked cars. And they were even higher. Those poor guys figured they’d blown a fuel element and Were about to shut the whole place down and evacuate. Then you told them it was probably fallout from weapons tests. And they checked and found out it was. Is that just because they’re out there in the desert, closer to the testing sites, or is that going to be a problem for me, too?”
I asked, “Did you try it here? You could make the same sort of test yourself, you know.”
“No, sir. We just haven’t had time.”
“You would find that you got about the same results. In fact, the radiation levels from weapons testing fallout are higher, almost anywhere in the Northern Hemisphere, than we have set for a radiation alert on the ships. You should find lower contamination levels in your engine room than in the parking lot outside. You just have to be aware of that, and not call a false alarm. In case of doubt, you have procedures for differentiating between various radioisotopes. That should pin it down.”
Panoff asked, “Have your men been briefed on the ■Cleaning of the colors of the various indicating and warning lights?”
The engineer had now come back from setting up the Parts search, and he handled Panoff’s question. “Lights? Yes, sir. I handled that myself. The complete spectrum, I called it, from on to caution to warning to danger. They °ught to know that cold, sir.”
“We’ll see, won’t we?” said Panoff. “Let’s go.”
Grigg had already left to go over electrical and control questions with appropriate crew members, accompanied by the executive officer. The skipper and the engineer ducked through the watertight door into the corridor, fol
lowing Panoff. A noncommissioned officer was standing watch over some machinery with a large number of red and green lights. The engineer smiled reassuringly at the sailor, then did a double take as he looked at the lights.
Panoff asked, “Chief, do you understand the color system for machinery lights?”
“Will you please explain what you have here?”
“Yes, sir. Glad to,” replied the chief. “When I got here last week, these lights were all sorts of colors. You wouldn’t believe it. Red, blue, yellow, green. Everything. Even white ones. But I got them all in order.”
The engineer could control himself no longer. “My God, Chief! What in the world have you done?”
Panoff cut him off. “Please let him answer. Please explain your system, Chief.”
“Yes, sir. Well, you see, red is for port and green is for starboard. So all the lights for the port valves and the port pumps are red, and the starboard ones are green. See how clear it makes it? You can’t get the wrong one that way.” “Thank you, Chief. That will be all.”
The engineer said grimly, “Chief, I want to see you in the wardroom when this is over. Don't go anywhere.” Panoff said gently, “There’ll be more, Lieutenant. The night is young yet.”
They went down the passageway to the next watch- stander. I stopped to quiz him, and Panoff went through another door with the skipper, into the engine room. The engineer stayed with me.
“Sailor,” I said, “I understand you’re qualifying for reactor operator.”
“Yes, sir. But I’m not finished yet.”
“I understand. You’ve completed theoretical school?” “Yes, sir. At Bainbridge.”
“And prototype school?”
“Yes, sir. And I’m qualifying for the various watch-stations here on the boat—or ship, we’re supposed to call it. I can’t get used to a submarine being a ship, sir.”
“I’d like to check you out on some basic thermodynamic theory,” I said. “Is that OK?”
“Yes, sir. I guess I’m about as ready as I’ll ever be.” “Do you know what Charles’s Law is?”
“I forget which is Charles’s and which is Boyle’s. One is temperature and the other is pressure.”
“I don’t care whether you remember their names. I just want to be sure you know what they mean. Suppose we have a sealed tank, full of a perfect gas. Is air a perfect gas?” I asked.
“Any gas follows the perfect-gas law pretty well unless it’s under very high pressure,” said the sailor.
“Well, air does, anyway. So let’s say this tank has a pressure gauge on it that reads 10 PSIG. Do you know what that means?”
“Yes, sir, 10 pounds per square inch gauge pressure.” “Right. And let’s say it has a temperature gauge that reads 70° Fahrenheit. Now let’s say we heat it up until the temperature reads 140° Fahrenheit. What do you expect the pressure gauge to read? Will it change?”
“Yes, sir, it will go up. Boyle’s or Charlie’s Law says that if you double the temperature in a sealed system with
perfect gas in it, the pressure will double too, so the gauge will read 20, right? . . .You look as if that’s not right.” “Well, let’s think about it a little more,” I said. “Suppose there’s a second temperature gauge on the tank, and this one reads Celsius. Let’s see, 70° Fahrenheit would be about 20° Celsius. And 140° Fahrenheit would be about [mumble, mumble] 60° Celsius. So the Fahrenheit gauge says you’ve doubled the temperature, but the Celsius gauge says you’ve increased it threefold.
Which is right?”
The sailor now looked baffled.
“Gee, now I’m really confused. Wait a minute. I got it!
From 70° to 140°
Fahrenheit isn’t doubling. You gotta start figuring from absolute zero, which is 273° below zero in Celsius. I don’t remember what it is in Fahrenheit.”
“Now we’re getting somewhere,” I said, getting into it.
“Suppose we figured out how much heat it took to double the temperature, then the pressure would go to 20 pounds, right?” The sailor nodded. “But now let’s start with the pressure gauge reading zero. We add the heat to double the pressure, but how do you double zero?”
But the sailor didn’t bite on that one. “No, I’m with you now. The pressure gauge isn’t showing an absolute number either. It reads zero at atmospheric pressure, which is about 15 pounds per square inch absolute. So if you doubled the pressure, the gauge would go to 30 PSI absolute pressure, or 15 PSI gauge pressure. That’s right, isn’t it?” He looked pleadingly at me. “Look, Mister, I’m not stupid. They just didn’t teach us this sort of thing in school.”
I was completely conciliatory. “You did OK. It s clear you’re not stupid. And you’re not ignorant, either. But you’ve got me worried about the schools.”
While this was going on, the chief previously questioned was relieved of the watch, accompanied by the engineer, and I went back to quiz the replacement. The chief was looking at a sheaf of papers that he sheepishly tried to stuff into his pocket when he saw me approaching. “Whatcha got, Chief?” I asked.
Embarrassed, the chief looked helplessly to the engineer, who said, “Tell him, Chief."
“It’s a crib sheet, sir. A list of questions we got from
the guys at the prototype after their quiz. That isn’t really u cheating, is it?”
“No, because it won’t do you any good. We just want d to know if you understand what you’re doing. What would you like to be asked about? What do you know best?”
“I just finished studying the charging procedure, sir. ;
Ask me about that.”
“OK, Chief, tell me about it. What do you do?” <1
“Well, when the s
water level in the a
pressurizer gets j below this point here, I turn on the e
charging pump F
by throwing this switch. And I keep t
watching the water- level gauge, and I 1 ^
turn it off when it t
gets up to here.”
“So what is the E
maximum amount of water you have ' t
to pump in, in , inches of water level?” I asked. ‘
“We try to keep 1
it within four inches, sir. We normally I
don’t like it to get !
any further off than : 1
that.” | s
“How long should it take to raise the 1
water level four inches, Chief?”
“Ten minutes, sir.”
“Suppose I think it’s 20 minutes. How would you check that?”
“I can find that right in the manual, sir. It will only take a few minutes to look that up. But I’m sure ten minutes is right.”
He started pawing frantically through the manual, but I cut in. “Suppose you can’t find it in the manual. Is there any other way you could check it?”
“I’d ask the other chief, sir. He’s pretty smart, and he’s j , been around longer than I have.”
“Chief, I’m trying to get down to fundamentals. You taught math at the school, didn’t you?”
The chief was puzzled by this turn in the conversation. “Yes, sir.”
“Could you calculate from first principles how long it should take to pump four inches of water into that pres- surizer?”
“What do you mean, sir? What first principles?”
“Chief, can you calculate the volume of a cylinder four inches high and the diameter of the pressurizer? And could you convert that volume into gallons? And, knowing the gallons per minute the charging pump can deliver, could you calculate how long it would take to deliver that vol- 1
ume of water? Could you?”
“Oh, yes, sir. That’s the sort of problem I gave my students all the time.”
“Then do it right now.”
“Now. Let me see you do it.”
The chief pulled a piece of paper out of the drawer and quickly scratched out some figures. He then took out a slide rule and, after a few deft movements, wrote down an answer. With a smile of relief he turned to me and said, “See? Ten minutes! ”
“The point is, Chief, that you trigged around with every possible way of getting that answer except by a simple calculation. And you showed that you can calculate it in a few seconds. Why would you do everything else but? Why wouldn’t you just calculate it?”
“I guess I just never think of math when I’m on the job. School is school, but this is the real world. That’s what they kept telling us at the prototype school.”
I jumped at that one. ”What did they keep telling you at the prototype?”
“Geez, I guess I stuck my foot in it. I probably shouldn’t he telling you this . .
“Tell him,” said the engineer,.
“On the very first day the instructors say, ‘Forget about all that crap you learned at theoretical school. This is the real world.’ Pardon me, but that’s what they said, sir.”
I responded with great sadness. “Oh, brother! Chief, I’m not mad at you. Thanks for telling me. But we’re going to have to do something. If you don’t ever think of using what you teach, we certainly can’t expect your students to.”
I turned to walk away, but the chief called after me, hesitatingly, “Sir, I have to tell you something.”
“I want you to know something. I was in the Navy for nearly 15 years before this program came along. I was a Epical sailor, like in the movies. You know the type. If the average human being uses 10% of his brain, I was using 1%. Everybody figured sailors were supposed to be stupid, and who were we to argue? Now I'm working my tail off, but I’m alive. Y’know, I’m actually a thinking human being. And I think about how I just threw away *5 years of my life because nobody kicked my ass. You know what really woke me up? On my old ship we didn’t have toasters, ‘cause sailors are too dumb to work toasters, right? So we had cold, hard, dry toast from the galley. Then one day we had toasters on the tables. And I asked around, How come? And you know what I found out? They said Captain Rickover had told the top Navy brass that if sailors were smart enough to run a nuclear power plant, they could damn well run a toaster. And I said, there’s a guy I want to work for. And I—well, I wanted you to know that you’ve done a lot for a lot of guys, ‘cause I wasn’t the only one. Thanks.”
He turned away, and I was really touched. But all I could say was, “Thanks, Chief. I really appreciate your telling me that. Good luck to you.”
Saturday continued along in the same vein. In the evening, Panoff came in from the engine room with word that Admiral Rickover had arrived and was waiting for us in the wardroom. So we hurried to the wardroom and seated ourselves at the table. The Admiral asked, “Have you finished with your quiz?”
. . .The results were reviewed with him and with the skipper, the exec, and the engineer. After making sure that all of the points had been made clear and that none of them was being contested by the ship’s officers, Rickover signed off with a simple statement: “Well, Commander, from what you’ve just heard you can see you’ve got a lot of work to do. Your men are not as well trained as you thought. How is it that a couple of outsiders can come onto your ship and, in a few hours, find out more than you know about conditions here? Do you think I would let that happen on my ship? If you had spent last weekend like we spent this one, this never would have happened.”
We departed into the night, to plan another crew quiz.
Mr. Rockwell worked directly for Admiral Rickover from 1949 to 1964 in the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program and was his technical director for the last ten of those years. After leaving Naval Reactors, he and two colleagues established MPR Associates, an engineering firm. He is currently in private practice.
Editor’s Note: The preceding is an excerpt from The Rickover Effect, a new book available this month from Naval Institute Press.
Need to Know
The evening speaker at the Engineers Club in Baltimore was an Army general on duty at the Pentagon, overseeing funding of military projects. He related that upon arriving in Washington he, his wife, and their little boy took a drive into the Virginia countryside about the time satellite TV dish antennas were first appearing in peoples’ yards.
The little boy, pointing to such a dish, asked his mother what it was. She said to him, “Ask your father, he's the engineer!”
The boy declined her suggestion and replied indignantly, “But, Mom, I don’t want to know that much about it!”
Millard F. Kirk