Wednesday, October 3, 2012

USS ENTERPRISE Nuclear Chemistry Emergency

I served four tours on three ships in my Navy career: USS ENTERPRISE (CVN-65) twice, USS ABRAHAM LINCOLN (CVN-72), and USS SAMUEL GOMPERS (AD-37). I traveled to many parts of the world, mostly in Asia, though I rode the Enterprise through the Suez Canal for my first return trip to Europe. Out of all the “adventures” the Navy gave me, I consider this one the defining moment of my career. Now, with twenty years of perspective I wonder if I handled it properly.

Let me start by saying no radioactive material leaked out of the reactor plant and no one was injured in this incident. The main goal of maintaining the state of chemistry in the water in a nuclear power plant is so the parts of it do not rust or wear out. In addition, tiny bits of rust passing through a reactor core become dangerously radioactive.

So it is in the best interest of the operators and the general public to keep the water as pure and as free of acid as possible. I worked in the division (shop) whose job it was to monitor and adjust chemistry when needed for the eight reactors powering the USS ENTERPRISE (CVN-65).

            We add several different chemicals to adjust the pH or the water and to scavenge oxygen. When pH is high (well above 7) and no oxygen is present then metal is much slower to rust despite being in close contact with water. That is why the Enterprise has lasted with more or less the same engine rooms and reactor plants for coming up on 52 years!


I joined the Navy’s nuclear power program before I graduated high school.  I shipped out to boot camp in Orlando, Fla. at the end of the summer. Nine weeks later I went to my first school in Great Lakes, Illinois. I completed that school and three more besides in the next two years in Orlando and New York before finally reporting to the ENTERPRISE in the shipyards in Puget Sound, Washington.

By the time of this incident in 1984, I was on my second tour on the ENTERPRISE and attained the rank of first class petty officer. I was in charge of the Aft Chemistry Group; that is the two plants near the back of the ship. We had responsibility over four of the reactors and 16 of the steam generators. Six teams of two rotated keeping watch over the operating plants in each group around the clock every day the ship is on its own power.

The Incident

One day while the ship operated in coastal waters near California I received a call from my team on watch in the morning. The Top Watch (the senior member of the team) informed me that he had an out of spec chemistry problem. He gave me the numbers and told me he had made a mistake. The plant was supposed to go online earlier that day and he had prepared chemistry to support it.

Now when you open the steam valves of a reactor the chemicals in the water seem to disappear. They don’t really but they are not in the steam the way you want them to be. So after we bring a plant online we add more chemicals, which my team did.

Unfortunately, the plant shut down immediately after that which brought all the previous chemicals out of hiding. It took more than three hours for all of my teams working together to get things back to normal.


Normally when incidents happen a report has to be filed. The supervisor gathers the logs and statements and submits a written report that makes its way to the high offices of the Navy Yard. However in this case, the Chemistry officer insisted I give an oral report to the senior navy staff on board the ship. I suspected his intent was to place me in the awkward position of explaining something that few people truly understand. That officer was one of those given to letting personal biases affect his leadership (or lack thereof). He chose the wrong person.

I was fully versed in the vagaries of nuclear chemistry and had worked on those plants for years. Endless days and nights of watch in the chemistry shack left me closely attuned to the plants and how they behaved when conditions changed.

I had a day to prepare my report which was plenty of time despite my fatigued condition. I did extra research to find out the latest theories of crystal formation in water under intense neutron flux. That was the key. I won’t explain that here because it is esoteric chemistry that few people understand as I later discovered.

The Presentation

            The content of my report is still classified decades later (75 years by government policy). The audience consisted of my entire division, its officers and several members of the naval reactors inspection team. Normally, those men do not attend these reports but again, I suspect my boss was trying to increase the pressure on me. No problem.

            I spent the next twenty or so minutes giving a lecture on where the chemicals go when temperatures and pressures change, how radiation affects crystal structure and the response to changing power levels.

            When I was done the room was silent. I asked my Chemistry officer if he was satisfied with the answer. I could tell he was lost. I asked his boss, the Chem-Radcon Assistant (a man with an advanced biology degree), he seemed likewise lost. No one seemed to understand enough to know if what I had just explained was accurate.

            Except Master Chief Bowers, one of the greatest chemists in the history of naval nuclear power. He had authored much of our Chemistry manual and the fleet’s top expert on all things chemistry. I asked if he thought I gave an adequate explanation for the unexplainable. He said, “Yes, but you got it backwards.”

            I looked over my equations and charts for a moment. Master Chief prompted me on the open-ended crystal formula; I had it! It took several minutes to work it back but I was able to give the correct chemical process to his satisfaction.

            The meeting ended and all of my notes left with the officers. Master Chief gave me a pat on the back before leaving. No more challenges to my competence came up again for that tour at least. Regardless of why the officer placed me in that position I enjoyed it. Not because it gave me the chance to show off, but because it was a challenge to figure out what the engines of my ship were doing. In presenting my report I gained greater knowledge of how chemistry works.

            The lingering thought, the final loose end for me is  . . . what if I was right in the first place? What if Master Chief was testing my confidence in my report? I don’t think I will ever know. If I had more time to prepare or maybe had more rest before standing in front of that crowd I would have been more certain. Nonetheless, I am pleased with the way I handled the challenge from an officer whom I later learned was racist(never a good thing in a military officer but all too common). He threw down the gauntlet and ended up eating it. That in itself was good enough for me.