Call me a Nuclear Engineer
The hardest training you've never heard of
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."