When I was in the Navy, I operated nuclear power plant equipment on board the largest, most complex warships ever constructed: Nimitz class aircraft carriers. The equipment that I was entrusted with on a daily basis had price tags in the hundreds of millions of dollars. In addition, our equipment simply couldn’t be down: An entire crew of nearly 5,000 other people relied on those of us down in the engineering spaces to provide them with water, power, propulsion, and steam (required to operate the catapults that launched aircraft off the flight deck).
The most incredible part of all this? All this machinery was primarily left in the hands of people like me that were barely out of high school, and often with little or no supervision from senior personnel.
How on Earth do a bunch of kids become entrusted with such a task, and how do they avoid screwing it up every day?
The answer is very simple, actually.
First of all, all nuclear operators spend a year in school, learning their trade and nuclear theory. It’s considered one of the most rigorous academic programs in the world, and at the time I went through, there was a fail out rate of over 50%. So, by the end of this training, we knew a ton of theory regarding how everything in a large nuclear plant interacted and operated.
Second, with that theoretical background in place, nuclear operators are introduced to the most important concept in all of nuclear power. In fact, this concept exists in just about all industrial facilities, including chemical factories, oil refineries, and manufacturing plant assembly lines, just to name a few. What is this magical concept?
Simply put, it’s this: Verbatim compliance with written procedures.
See, everything…and I do mean *everything*, in a nuclear power plant has a written, step-by-step procedure for getting anything done. No valve is turned, button is pushed, maintenance performed, without referencing the proper checklist.
This concept is so important to the safe operation of a nuclear power plant that after that year of classroom training, Navy nukes are sent to a training ship for 6 months where they learn and become qualified to operate the equipment on board using the procedures. Basically, it’s 6 months of learning how to follow checklists in books. Then, and only then, is that sailor sent to the fleet to operate a seafaring vessel.
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