My Rickover Encounter


Admiral Hyman George Rickover, (January 27, 1900 – July 8, 1986)

As part of the initial engineering testing that goes with a new submarine, each shift had to have their qualified reactor operator and shift perform a fast scram recovery. A fast scram recovery involved an emergency shutdown of the nuclear reactor and a subsequent quick restart. For all submarines built during this time frame, Admiral Rickover personally observed these fast scram recoveries. This is about my turn in the barrel, so to speak. Three reactor operators were selected to perform the fast scram recovery while we were at sea. The admiral had come on board with all his accompanying fanfare and needs. A time was selected and the RO’s were taken to Machinery Room #2 to await their turn. I was number two in the line-up.

The Maneuvering Room was the location for most of the action; it was not a very big space. When my turn came, I was called to Maneuvering. It normally held four watchstanders: The Engineering Officer of the Watch (EOOW), the reactor operator (RO), the electrical plant operator (EO), and the steam plant operator (Throttleman). When I got to Maneuvering, it seemed that there were ten people in the space normally occupied by four. I managed to squeeze in and relieved the watch. Admiral Rickover was in the chair normally used by the EOOW and the EOOW was standing nearby. Also, it was not just the reactor operator who was being tested, but the whole shift. So, all four watch stations were being relieved. When things settled down, someone opened the scram breaker for a partial scram which caused us to have to do a fast scram recovery.

When the reactor is shut down, the first thing each watch stander does is “rig for reduced electrical” to keep the reactor as hot as possible. Part of this “rig for reduced electrical” in the engine room is to shut off the vent fan supplying the Maneuvering Room with cool air. The temperature went from 72 degrees to 98 degrees in about five minutes.

USS Sand Lance (SSN-660) was a Sturgeon Class submarine.Here we are with the reactor shut down, the boat rigged for reduced electrical, and a nervous reactor operator, me, asking permission to restart the reactor. I got permission and I started a fast scram recovery. A normal reactor startup is not all that eventful; but with Admiral Rickover at my right elbow with not enough room to breathe, things got a little tense.

My job was to withdraw the control rods in a sequence that led to a controlled, critical reactor after which we would do a plant heat-up and return the plant to normal conditions. I was doing this when I started “bumping” rods out to control the reactor. Admiral Rickover did not like the way I was bumping rods and yelled, “You’re breaking the machine.” This was quite a shock to me since I thought I was doing a good job. I got control of myself and the reactor and completed the startup with conditions back to normal. Normal conditions were: Tave (read T average) in the green band, the turbines on-line, and answering a 1/3 bell. At that point, I was relieved, in more than one way, and I got the hell out of Maneuvering. That is how I met Admiral Rickover.