When a fire of undetermined origin broke out on the nuclear submarine USS Miami last Wednesday in dry dock in Kittery, Maine, its nuclear reactor operators had to stay at their stations.
“It was a hectic, confusing time; there was heat and there were flames and there was a lot of uncertainty,” said Adm. Kirkland H. Donald, the Navy’s director of naval nuclear propulsion, who visited the USS Miami soon afterward.
He said the reactor operators told him they didn’t remember how they coped: “I don’t know what I did, but I know I relied on my training.”
Some of them almost certainly got their training at the Kenneth A. Kesselring Naval Nuclear Power Training Unit.
The Kesselring site, on 3,900 acres in Milton and Galway, has been used to train U.S. sailors to operate small reactors since 1957. Future President Jimmy Carter was assigned there in the 1950s.
On Tuesday, under a huge white tent in one of the site’s parking lots, a ceremony was held to mark the graduation of the training program’s class, which included its 50,000th trainee.
“This is a historic event,” said site commanding officer Capt. Brian P. Fort.
Speakers outlined the intensive two-year process that leads to graduation and told the newly minted petty officers to be proud.
The students are put through rigorous classroom instruction and tests in nuclear propulsion theory and practice, then apply what they’ve learned on prototype reactors that simulate shipboard reactors, under the supervision of experienced instructors.
“You’re going to feel a heavy burden of responsibility on your shoulders. Be proud of having that responsibility,” Donald told the graduates, smartly attired in their dress white uniforms.
Jenna Swindt, 26, from Santa Rosa, Calif., was designated the 50,000th program graduate. Women have been eligible to attend reactor school since 1994.
Most of the new graduates have been assigned to report for duty aboard submarines or aircraft carriers, but Swindt will spend the next two years as a staff instructor at West Milton.
Swindt acknowledged that the program had been hard.
“You put in very long days. It’s not like anything I’ve ever done before,” said Swindt, who was a trained EMT before deciding to join the Navy.
The graduating class consisted of 194 enlisted personnel and 52 officers, representing 32 different states, Navy officials said. Their average age is 20.
At any given time, Fort said there are six classes passing through — three assigned to each of the two training reactors.
Kesselring is operated for the Navy by the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory in Niskayuna, a defense contractor devoted to developing new naval reactors and refining their operations. About 600 KAPL employees work at Kesselring, along with about 600 Navy personnel who are instructors or other staff.
“It is one of the most challenging and technically comprehensive training programs in the world,” said Morgan Smith, general manager of KAPL, which is owned by Bechtel Marine Propulsion Corp.
Smith said he expects the training program to continue for a long time: “We look forward to training the nation’s best and brightest for years to come,” he said.
The sailors who graduated Tuesday — among about 1,300 who pass through the Kesselring training program each year — are often described as “cream of the crop” high school and college graduates.
Their journey began two years ago with Nuclear Field School for enlisted personnel, then Nuclear Power School for both enlisted personnel and officers. Those schools, where students learn nuclear theory and practice, are located in Charleston, S.C.
The schooling — tough enough that Donald said no student has ever achieved a perfect 4.0 grade-point average — is followed by hands-on training on nuclear reactors. That happens at either moored submarines in Charleston or at the two prototype reactors in West Milton.
Students spend about six months at Kesselring and graduate as petty officers third class.
Students put in about 56 hours per week, and to graduate they must pass written and oral exams as well as being tested on their hands-on reactor operation skills.
Donald said the training, which goes on around the clock, is intended to be tough.
“These are officers we have to have the utmost trust in,” he said. “We change their DNA.”
Those who have completed the training program are noted for their “integrity, quality, excellence and their service to the nation,” said Thomas P. D’Agostino, undersecretary and administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration.
U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam, told the graduates they will be performing a “critical mission.”
He said he sees the facility’s future as bright.
“Something like this is certainly part of the future. We’re talking technology here,” Tonko said after the ceremony. “There’s a military and strategic significance in its role.”
The location for the Kesselring site was selected in 1948 by Adm. Hyman Rickover, the legendary founder of the naval nuclear program. Construction started in 1951, and the first nuclear reactor went into operation in 1955. The first training class came in 1957.
There were four prototype reactors in operation during the 1970s and 1980s, but two were taken out of service in the 1990s, leaving two in continued operation.
The training program’s success is a tribute to the vision Rickover had for how to safely operate a nuclear navy, Donald said.
“He saw that if you were going to harness nuclear power, nothing is more important than the operator,” Donald told the graduates.
There are 71 nuclear-powered submarines and 11 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers in the U.S. fleet. About half of all naval nuclear reactor operators are trained at Kesselring, the only land-based training center.
The site was originally known simply as the West Milton site, but in 1968 it was renamed in memory of Kenneth A. Kesselring, who had been a general manager at KAPL.