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Monday, October 29, 2007

Integrity is Key

This bright-eyed young fellow is Machinist Mate 2nd Class Matthew Ugarph. He was an Engineering Laboratory Technician (ELT). It appears that last year he was selected for an officer candidate program after serving onboard a Pearl Harbor based nuclear-powered attack submarine. Nice job Matthew.

Guys like Matthew used to work for me when I served as Chemical and Radiological Controls Assistant onboard USS Billfish. We were almost all under thirty, and many of the enlisted men were 19 or 20. We worked in an environment where the most experienced officer onboard had been doing his specific job for three years, and that would have been on the day he was being transferred to a new job. Some of the enlisted men would have been at it longer than that, but not on the same ship, and probably not with the same type of power plant. Many people who operated and maintained the reactor had been doing that job for a year or less.

By contrast, I worked at a civilian power plant for a couple of years where I was a baby at 28, everyone else was in their forties or fifties. Most people had spent twenty years on the job, including the guy on the bottom of the operations org chart whose jobs was to tour the plant and take readings.

My point is that the Navy is able to successfully operate dozens of nuclear reactors with a bunch of teenagers only because it has created a culture of integrity. When that breaks down, it is very dangerous. A friend forwarded me this story from CNN about sailors onboard USS Hampton first failing to monitor reactor chemistry and then falsifying the records to indicate they had performed the tests. Missing the tests is bad, but I'm sure we monitor chemistry much more closely than we need to. It is a long term problem and even if there was a negative impact, there are many, many other layers of protection that would detect a problem in terms of public safety or the safety of the crew. The lying, on the other hand, is devastating. The Navy said, "There is not, and never was, any danger to the crew or the public." I beg to differ. Any breakdown in the culture of absolute candor in the Navy's Nuclear Power Program is a danger to the crew and the public.


Matt Dick said...

I agree with you, but I would say that the Navy did exactly the right thing. Any organization can have a few individuals who break from the larger culture. The way you deal with it is as the Navy is doing. These guys were swiftly dealt with, and the culprits relieved of duty and spread around to be subsumed into the larger culture again.

In that sense, and in the practical sense of this mistake, the public is and was not in danger.

JimII said...

I do think the Navy is doing the right thing.

I am such a zealous advocate of nuclear power, that my sense of intellectual honesty requires that I write about the things that bother me about it as well.

Matt Dick said...

Of course. And I do agree that anything like this hurts the Navy in a broad sense. How they deal with it could make it A) a long term problems, B) a short term problem, or C) a short term problem with an ultimately strengthening result. I think they are are path C.