A Tiny Bit of Insight into this Navy Scandal

Thirty years ago, right about … nnnnow … I was graduating from Officer Indoctrination School in Newport, RI, and would shortly report for duty in Orlando, FL on the USS Disney World as a Nuclear Power Instructor, where I would serve for a little over 4 and a half years.

So this got my attention: AP NewsBreak: Navy Kicks out 34 for Nuke Cheating

At least 34 sailors are being kicked out of the Navy for their roles in a cheating ring that operated undetected for at least seven years at a nuclear power training site, and 10 others are under criminal investigation, the admiral in charge of the Navy’s nuclear reactors program told The Associated Press.

The number of accused and the duration of cheating are greater than was known when the Navy announced in February that it had discovered cheating on qualification exams by an estimated 20 to 30 sailors seeking to be certified as instructors at the nuclear training unit at Charleston, South Carolina.


A lot of things have undoubtedly changed in the 25 years since I separated from active duty — Nuke School moved from Orlando, FL to South Carolina, and they combined it with the hands-on Nuclear Power Training Unit (NPTU) training taking place on moored submarines (originally done at prototype sites, and two of those units still operate) and the Nuclear Field “A” school for the enlisted, which was just getting started when I was teaching.

The report says this was confined to a single unit and the test was called “engineering watch supervisor” which leads me to believe this happened with the NPTU training portion of the school, which happens at the end of the sequence.

There is mention of there being five tests, given in a predictable rotation. The classroom and prototype training were each about six months (IIRC it was 24 weeks), and that probably hasn’t changed much. Each new class arrived at seven week intervals (except if the start were at the end of December, when classes were not held), which means that there were at most four classes in session at a time. The rationale behind five exam templates was that no active student could give useful information to a shipmate in a subsequent class in terms of test questions and answers, since they would not be taking the same test, and because all test were returned after review — they were never out of an instructor’s control. If the students wanted to come up with a master file, it would be by memorizing question and answers, and then passing the information along, with no benefit to the first five sets of students who did this. Not impossible but also not considered a big risk.

Coming up with a completely (or largely) new exam was not really an option, because you want some degree of uniformity of the difficulty of the tests. So you would recycle the tests with maybe a few changes, and that allowed you to compile statistics on test questions. If a particular class did exceptionally bad or good on an exam, you could have some confidence that it was not because the test was too hard/easy. You could replace questions with others in the exam bank and know it shouldn’t wreck the projected score because you had these stats, and brand-new questions were limited to minimize any effect they might have if they proved to be significantly easier or harder than projected. I don’t really find fault with that — potential staff cheating wasn’t the focus. The staff are/were supposed to have more integrity than the students.

Back in the day, of course, none of this was computerized. We barely had word processor technology, and no exam material could go into any digital format (exam writing was literally cut, copy, and paste. As in cut out a question from one sheet and paste it in place on the new exam master, and run it through the copy machine (sometimes twice, so you could white-out any extraneous lines from the cut). So there’s some inertia here in the rules, from the days when greater changes to the exams were just too laborious to carry out.

The blurb about the reactors being operated safely was valid. The sailors were already qualified to do that — this was for teaching certification, not operator certification, which is one reason why this is puzzling. The information should have been material they knew. In my qualification there were oral exams as well and I imagine that’s true for this part of the program, so any knowledge deficiencies could have been uncovered.

While my nominal tour of duty was four years (I extended it to better mesh with the start of graduate school and because I was in a not-yet-known-to-be-doomed relationship) these sailors likely had shorter tours, so if this has been going on since 2007, the cheating franchise has changed hands a few times. It’s not clear if all 34 are currently instructors, or if (as I suspect, now that I think about it) this is going to include sailors much closer to their retirement.

There’s an unfortunate habit of thinking that integrity is not ratting out your friends, so it’s quite possible that some sailors are getting away with cheating because their shipmates won’t turn them in. The navy integrity and ethics I am used to always had, somewhere in the foundation, the idea that cutting corners was bad because lives were at risk. If these were indeed sailors at the latter part of the training, then they had been to sea, where your life depends on your shipmates not shirking their duty (this is not hyperbole; mistakes made 400 feet below the surface do not have a margin of error you have when you can open a door and run outside), and why such things are not tolerated. That makes this all the more shocking, and it’s also refreshing to see it being made public rather than some attempted half-assed coverup. (Though a more cynical me might speculate that there is a coverup of a larger problem and these are scapegoats, but despite this scandal I’m not feeling that cynical at the moment) This serves as a warning for anyone tempted in the future that it’s not worth it.