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Call me a Nuclear Engineer

The hardest training you've never heard of

by Lt. Loren Terry, Defense Media Activity
08 May 2015 Most Sailors have heard the stories about Naval Nuclear Power School and the follow on prototype training, the initial gateway through which all nuclear personnel in the Navy must pass: study hours spent pouring over intricate and complex materials, detailed and challenging written and oral examinations.

Then you're done, right?

The short answer is "No," and that's just the way it should be.

Often less heard of than the initial hurdles of power school and prototype is the Navy's Prospective Nuclear Engineering Officer course, or PNEO. Designed to be the crowning achievement of a nuclear officer's division officer tour on either a carrier or submarine, it is how the Navy qualifies people for nuclear propulsion duties at higher levels of seniority.

With a degree in mechanical engineering and enlisted time as a Machinist Mate (nuclear) under her belt, Lt. Amee Johnson knows how the process works - its benefits, its challenges and its rewards.

"PNEO tests your capabilities and character," said Johnson. "It's a personal accomplishment that assesses your knowledge in theory and systems to anticipate, operate, and then analyze evolutions ensuring the safe and reliable operations of our nuclear power assets."

As the PNEO coordinator for Commander, Naval Air Force Atlantic (CNAL), she assists students with study materials, generates and grades practice examinations and is a mentor for the nuclear engineer hopefuls as they navigate through the final eight weeks of a process that culminates in a four hour written examination and oral boards with nuclear engineers at Naval Reactors Headquarters, the governing body for the Navy's nuclear propulsion program.

"This is a career milestone for a nuke," said Johnson. "All the evolutions, maintenance availabilities, drill sets, and flight ops have all been building to this point. Once you have completed the PNEO process, you can breathe a sigh of relief and know that you've accomplished something very significant."

The PNEO course provides an opportunity to focus on personal growth and development, away from the daily demands of life on a ship. Featuring a broad study curriculum that includes reactor principles, chemistry, electrical power theory, and nuclear physics to name a few, the course is looking to create well rounded and attentive engineers, not just book smart ones.

"Being a successful nuclear engineer is going the extra mile to seek out additional leadership opportunities, being the go-to person for standard and non-standard evolutions, and being a mentor to other junior officers," said Johnson.

But as is the case with the initial phase of nuclear training, not everybody gets over the bar to achieve qualification as a nuclear engineer.

"Not everyone makes it through PNEO," said Johnson. "The nuclear field is demanding. It demands the best from all of us."

Not far removed from where her students are in the nuclear engineer pipeline, Johnson was in their seats not long before ... and it wasn't easy.

"I can safely say I have never read, re-read, scratched down so many notes, written and erased on boards, and then read material again than I did during my time at PNEO."
VIRIN: 150508-N-VA840-002

While candidates get time away from the ship, the PNEO course is a full time job, which demands the students' full attention.

Though the amount of study time is decided by each individual student, there is plenty in the way of study material and subject matter experts to lean on.

"The resources available to the students are amazing - everything from interactive simulators, Electronics Technician Maintenance School and CNAL staff and an expansive library, affectionately known as the vault by students and instructors, full of source documents," said Johnson.

As a PNEO grad, a qualified nuclear engineering officer and the current Reactor Officer on board USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71), Cdr. Thomas Moninger can appreciate what the junior officers are going through and what the Navy expects from them upon their completion of the program.

"I see a huge difference [when the officers return to the ship after successfully completing PNEO]," said Moninger. "The self-study and time away from the ship allows them to put their experiences into perspective."

Though there have been a few changes to PNEO since Moninger went through in 2000, many of the challenges and expectations have remained the same.

"The examination process is very challenging and successfully completing it instills a sense of confidence in an individual's technical rigor," said Moninger. "The net result is that engineer-qualified officers return to the carrier (or submarine) and are ready to take on roles of increasing responsibility."

Johnson has never said that the PNEO course, or any of her nuclear training thus far, was easy, nor that it should be. But she also is quick to say that it was rewarding.

"I know that I have received some of the best training that any branch of the military has to offer," said Johnson. "I can translate the education and leadership opportunities this program has rewarded me with into a successful naval career."

Being a nuclear engineer is not just about getting an aircraft carrier from point A to point B, or keeping the lights on aboard a submarine operating deep in the ocean; it's about being driven - driven to push yourself academically, mentally and professionally. It's about providing the knowledge, expertise and warfighting advantages that keep the U.S. Navy safely and seamlessly operating across the globe day-in and day-out.

As a career milestone and significant personal accomplishment, PNEO is academically rigorous and challenging - but even more than that - it's rewarding.
VIRIN: 150508-N-VA840-001