August 30, 2011:
A year after the captain of the USS Memphis (an SSN, or nuclear attack submarine) was dismissed, along with ten percent of his crew, because they cheated on nuclear equipment qualification tests, several former crewmen and officers on nuclear subs have come forward to insist that the practice was widespread. The reason was that the tests had been made more and more difficult, beyond the point where it made any sense. Rather than lose a lot of nuclear power system personnel, the officers tolerated cheating. More senior commanders, caught in the middle, looked the other way.
But three times in the past four years, the navy admitted to such cheating (twice on subs, once on a nuclear powered aircraft carrier.) These incidents were revealed by inspections conducted by the high command. The navy insists that there is no widespread cheating, and that the tests are not excessively difficult. But sailors and officers who operate these nuclear power plants accuse the brass of covering their butts with the use of more tests and inspections, while pressuring the senior officers on the ships (captains and heads of nuclear power departments) to keep their sailors in the navy. Many of these highly trained personnel are getting out of the navy, in part because of the poor leadership at the very top.
For the last few years, the U.S. Navy has had to pay a lot more to keep experienced people with certain skills. Some types of submarine and nuclear power technicians can now get a bonus of up to $125,000 if they reenlist for three years. This came about because, next to the SEAL commandos, the submarine service, especially nuclear power specialists, is the most selective job, and candidates require nearly as much training. These specialists have an easy time getting good civilian jobs if they get out.
But the biggest attraction to leaving the navy is no more going to sea for up to six months at a time. This is tough on family life, and most sailors are married. The war on terror has meant more work for U.S. nuclear subs, which are very popular for staking out coastal areas where terrorists are operating. The problem also applies to many of the 350 personnel that staff the nuclear power plant on aircraft carriers. The navy will not lower standards for nuclear power specialists. There has never been an accident with nuclear power plants used on hundreds of U.S. submarines and surface ships since the 1950s. This admirable safety record has not been easy to achieve, as the three cheating incidents, and the retention problems attest.