Nuclear-trained sailors, considered the Navy’s ‘best and brightest,’ face mental health challenges (2023)

In a statement, Capt. Scott McGinnis, the commanding officer of the Naval Nuclear Power Training Command, said officials at the school “take every suicide very seriously and seek to learn from every one of these sad events.”

“Our curriculum is rigorous and the nature of our work is difficult, but our country’s national security depends on the performance of our aircraft carriers and submarines,” McGinnis said. “However, nothing is more important than our Sailors’ health, especially mental health.”

The numbers alone might not capture the breadth of the mental health struggles among students and instructors in the nuclear program. Instructors, students and their loved ones said nuclear-trained sailors, known in the field as nukes, often avoid counseling and mask their struggles out of fear of getting a mental health diagnosis that would lead to their expulsion.

Douglas Bainbridge, an Electrician’s Mate First Class who taught at the school from 2017 to 2021, said people are “terrified” to admit they may be suffering from mental health issues because they fear they could lose a job they’ve invested years on. “No amount of counselors is going to address the underlying issue,” he said.

“They’d rather suffer and still be a nuke than go and get the help they need,” said the spouse of a former nuclear student who struggled with suicidal ideation and depression before transferring out. The spouse asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation. “Sometimes they wait too long, and that’s what breaks them.”

For some staff members, it was normal to find unresponsive students and bring them to the hospital, one current and one former nuclear instructor said, adding that they’re trained to scan students’ faces in class to identify anyone who may be struggling, as well as keep their eyes peeled when walking around campus, especially at night.

“You have to be ready to respond when you see a body,” Bainbridge said.

The Navy confirmed that one nuclear student and two staff members took their own lives in 2019, while another staff member died by suicide in January 2021. Most recently, a student died by suicide in October 2022, the Navy said, adding that there were no suicides in 2018 and 2020 and that the suicide rate was less than .00031% over the last five years.

From 2018 to 2022, the Naval Nuclear Power Training Command averaged 150 attempts and 31 suicides per 100,000 people, according to an NBC News analysis of data provided by the Navy. That’s more than two times higher than the national suicide rate of 13.5 per 100,000 in 2020, the most recent year with complete federal data.

Mental health struggles have also been seen in other Naval commands. Four sailors assigned to Mid-Atlantic Regional Maintenance Center — which maintains military ships and is based in Norfolk, Virginia — died by suicide within weeks of each other in October and November, the Navy said.

The deaths came about six months after the Navy said three sailors assigned to the USS George Washington aircraft carrier killed themselves within a week in April. On Jan. 23, another sailor assigned to the USS George Washington died by suicide, according to the Navy and the Newport News Police Department.

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A grueling program

The nuclear academic program is “widely acknowledged” as the most demanding in the U.S. military, the Navy says on its website.

On top of spending about 45 hours a week in the classroom — mastering subjects like nuclear physics and engineering — students can be mandated to study for another 10 to 35 hours on their own, its website says. The mandated study time varies depending on a student’s academic performance.

In a statement, Lt. Andrew Bertucci, a Navy spokesperson, said it is “very rare” for a student to be assigned more than 25 hours of study and that the average 45 hour-week includes both classroom instruction and mandated study hours.

Johnson and others interviewed said that wasn’t rare and that students who have fallen the most behind are pulling up to 16-hour days at the school because the program materials are confidential and can’t leave the premises.

“It’s complete sensory deprivation,” said Johnson, who was at the school from 2019 to 2021 but did not complete the program and is no longer in the military.

Jacob Slocum was 17 when he signed up for the Navy and initially didn’t want to pursue the nuclear route. But his mother, Kimberly McInerney, said he scored so high on his entry exam that the Navy flashed a $16,000 sign-on bonus, which would have seemed like a lot to a teenager.

Nuclear-trained sailors, considered the Navy’s ‘best and brightest,’ face mental health challenges (2)

“They pushed and they pushed and they pushed him, and finally, he said, ‘OK I’ll do the nuke program’,” McInerney said. “And it was the worst decision he made in his life.”

Today, the Navy offers $38,000 to active-duty nuclear recruits — its biggest enlistment bonus — as well as thousands of dollars in additional annual payments just for being a nuke and up to $100,000 to some who re-enlist.

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Besides meeting physical standards and requirements for a security clearance, enlisted applicants must be high school graduates who have scored in the top percentile in the military’s aptitude exam, the Navy said.

Of the roughly 3,000 people who get accepted into the nuclear training program each year, about 2,700 of them complete it, the Navy said.

Bainbridge said he noticed a spike in suicide attempts about halfway into the first phase of the program, known as “A” school, where enlisted students have to memorize the basics of their specialties in about three to six months, depending on their trade.

Nuclear-trained sailors, considered the Navy’s ‘best and brightest,’ face mental health challenges (3)

After a short break they begin power school, where they spend about six months mastering multiple subjects and are hit with a torrent of information at once.

The program concludes after an additional six months of hands-on training at a facility.

“It’s a tough school,” said Patrick Caserta, a former Navy recruiter who retired in 2006 and whose son was in the Navy but not part of the nuclear program when he died by suicide in 2018.

The Navy said most of the 10% who do not make it through the program are able to choose another specialty and continue serving. The graduates go on to join about 13,000 trained nuclear operators, who make up 4.7% of the entire fleet.

“All that prestige,” Caserta said. “They’re basing their whole futures on this school.”

Slocum, 23 and from Illinois, finished nuclear training in Goose Creek, where the school is located, in 2019. Once aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt, he was constantly punished with longer work hours and cleaning duties for being behind on his continuing education requirements, his family said.

“We knew that he was struggling academically, emotionally and mentally,” his mother said. “They would layer punishment on top of punishment on top of punishment. He was constantly behind. It was so hard for him to catch up.”

Slocum took his life on the ship on Dec. 5, 2022, according to the Kitsap County Medical Examiner’s office, which investigated his death.

‘Almost impossible demands’

John Paul Fritz, 29, was seven months away from his wedding when he died by suicide on Jan. 8, 2019. His fiancé, Mikaela Dalke, said she noticed a change in his demeanor after he became an instructor at the Naval Nuclear Power Training Command in 2017.

Nuclear-trained sailors, considered the Navy’s ‘best and brightest,’ face mental health challenges (4)

“It was a weird shift,” Dalke said. “When he was at the school, I would see him most evenings, but it wasn’t the same. He wasn’t the same.”

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Fritz, who joined the Navy in 2009, often told Dalke how difficult it was to be in the nuclear field, both when he was stationed on the USS Florida, sometimes pulling 48-hour shifts on the submarine, and when he was at the school.

Dalke said the suicides and attempts at the school weighed “heavy” on her partner, and that his job stressors ate away at him.

“They have these almost impossible demands on their students and their instructors,” she said. “But there’s not anywhere for them to go.”

The Navy did not comment on Dalke’s claims, but said in a statement to NBC News that it has made significant investments in mental health resources at the nuclear school, especially after a dedicated effort in 2018 to destigmatize mental health issues and increase availability to help.

There are a dozen mental health professionals on site and several more resources available a short walk away, Bertucci, the Navy spokesperson, said.

However, to ensure the safe operation of the Navy’s nuclear reactors, Bertucci said some medical conditions, including anxiety disorders and suicide attempts, do disqualify sailors from nuclear duty, but that a waiver “may be considered once a service member’s condition is stable.”

A former nuclear student, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation because he is still in the Navy, said he had to leave the program in 2021 after he sought help for his mental health and was diagnosed with major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder.

“There was no other way around it,” he said. “I would rather be alive and functional than do a job that I know I will definitely kill myself if I keep doing it.”

Nuclear-trained sailors, considered the Navy’s ‘best and brightest,’ face mental health challenges (5)

Fritz also sought help shortly before he died, Dalke said. He had a couple of sessions with a civilian therapist, then stopped because he feared jeopardizing a career he took a decade to build. “He didn’t want anything to come out,” Dalke said.

Dalke said she was furious with the school and the Navy after Fritz’s death. She was also heartbroken for every other sailor forced to weigh seeking mental health over risking their specialty.

“The sailors are sitting here thinking, is it my job or my life?” she said.

Bertucci and McGinnis said the nuclear school plans to add another clinician and clinical manager to the site next year. Bertucci said the Navy seeks to eliminate suicides by “providing better access to care, empowering a culture of peer-to-peer support and overcoming mental health stigmas.”

“Suicide is a public health issue and everyone in the Navy has a role to play in preventing suicide,” Bertucci said. “We will continue to work to eliminate the negative stereotypes and perceptions that keep our sailors and civilians from seeking help for psychological health concerns.”

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Life on a nuclear-powered vessel

Aboard submarines and aircraft carriers, the living conditions become more taxing and are unlike “anything else anywhere,” Bainbridge said.

Nuclear-trained sailors spend the majority of the time below deck, inside dark machinery rooms and reactor plants, where they often work more than 12-hour shifts, see little daylight, get less time off and feel isolated from the rest of the crew, according to a retired Navy chief petty officer who used to work for an aircraft carrier’s Reactor Department.

“They get treated like second-class citizens,” he said. “The ship depends on them. There’s so much pressure on them to keep the nuclear plant running that there’s always work to do.”

The retired chief, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he led with empathy, checked in on the sailors and granted them time off without alerting his superiors.

“What time do they have to take care of their own personal business or get their mind off work? They don’t,” he said. “Compassion from the chain of command is missing from the Reactor Department. The human factor doesn’t kick in at times.”

Too little regard for humanity is what Slocum’s family said pushed him over the edge. When McInerney visited the nuclear school, she said she saw so many bright and introverted young people that resembled her son.

“That school is full of hundreds of Jacobs,” she said. “It scares the s— out of me because now I feel a responsibility to try to protect those kids.”

On a recent morning in Goose Creek, about 20 miles north of Charleston, as students trickled in and out of the campus food court for their meal break, many speaking on condition of anonymity said they believed there was a mental health crisis at the command.

“It’s stressful,” said one sailor, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation.

After failing more than once, the sailor said he was in the process of transitioning out of the nuclear program.

“It’s better for me,” he said.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. You can also call the network, previously known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, at 800-273-8255, text HOME to 741741 or visit for additional resources.


How hard is the U.S. Navy nuclear program? ›

According to the Nuclear Field, Navy Nuke training is known for being rigorous as evidenced by a Navy nuclear power school graduation rate of just 80 percent despite the impressive aptitude scores of all those admitted.

What is the Navy nuclear program? ›

What Is the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program? The Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program comprises the military and civilian personnel who design, build, operate, maintain, and manage the nuclear-powered ships and the many facilities that support the U.S. nuclear-powered naval fleet.

What does a nuclear operator do in the Navy? ›

As an MMN, you are the Navy's nuclear reactor mechanic. It is your responsibility to perform all maintenance on the steam-powered propulsion plants aboard aircraft carriers and submarines to ensure our fleet can move safely. And your hard work can lead to great rewards.

What do you learn in Navy Nuke school? ›

The six-month course provides a comprehensive understanding of a pressurized-water Naval nuclear power plant, including reactor core nuclear principles, heat transfer and fluid systems, plant chemistry and materials, mechanical and electrical systems, and radiological control.

How many hours a week do Navy Nukes work? ›

The nuclear field in the navy stands duty once every 4 days for 24 hours and works the day before the day of and the day after for 9-12 hours, whether on weekends or holidays.

What is the hardest Navy school? ›

The naval nuclear program is widely acknowledged as having the most demanding academic program in the U.S. military.

How do you qualify for the Navy Nuclear Program? ›

To be an eligible candidate, you must:
  1. Be a U.S. citizen (dual citizens must renounce non-US citizenship)
  2. Be at least 19 years of age and less than 29 years of age at the time of commissioning—waivers up to 31 years of age are considered on a case-by-case basis.
  3. Meet any additional physical standards of the Navy.

What are the 7 principles of the nuclear Navy? ›

The major safety-program values of the NNPP are captured in its list of watchstanding principles: integrity, ownership, formality, level of knowledge, questioning attitude, procedural compliance, and forceful backup.

How much do Navy nukes get paid? ›

As of Feb 5, 2023, the average annual pay for a Navy Nuke in the United States is $89,980 a year. Just in case you need a simple salary calculator, that works out to be approximately $43.26 an hour. This is the equivalent of $1,730/week or $7,498/month.

What are the three nuclear jobs in Navy? ›

Three Navy job specialties, called “ratings”, are included in the NF community: Machinist's Mate Nuclear Power (MMN), Electrician's Mate Nuclear Power (EMN), and Electronics Technician Nuclear Power (ETN). The rating in which a NF candidate is trained is determined at the Recruit Training Center.

Is it hard to be a nuclear operator? ›

Being an operator at a nuclear plant is as much a calling as a career. Like any specialized field, becoming an operator requires completing a demanding training regimen with the highest standards.

Do Navy nukes get special pay? ›

Financial incentive for Nuclear-qualified Navy officers to continue on active duty upon completion of obligated service. The law authorizes a maximum $22K payable to commissioned officers, and $14K to Limited Duty officers.

How long does it take to become a Navy Nuke? ›

Enlist in the Navy's Nuclear Field (NF) program and commit to six years of active duty. You'll initially enlist for four years with a 24-month extension to complete education and training requirements.

What can you do after being a Navy nuke? ›

One of the most popular jobs among the Navy nukes is a nuclear technician. A nuclear technician is either employed in a nuclear energy power plant or as an assistant to a physicist, engineer, or any other professional whose job is to conduct research in the nuclear field.

Can you shower after a nuke? ›

Immediately after you are inside shelter, if you may have been outside after the fallout arrived: Remove your outer layer of contaminated clothing to remove fallout and radiation from your body. Take a shower or wash with soap and water to remove fallout from any skin or hair that was not covered.

How much does an e4 nuke make in the Navy? ›

A Petty Officer Third Class is a noncommissioned officer in the United States Navy at DoD paygrade E-4. A Petty Officer Third Class receives a monthly basic pay salary starting at $2,393 per month, with raises up to $2,906 per month once they have served for over 6 years.

How much is the Navy Nuke bonus? ›

Nuclear Accession Bonus Program

An accession bonus of up to $15,000 is paid to officers selected for nuclear propulsion training. Upon successful completion of the nuclear propulsion training program, officers receive a bonus of $2,000. If they don't complete the program, the bonus must be repaid.

Is Navy harder than Marine? ›

Although the Marines are highly respected and considered one of the most elite fighting forces, the Navy SEALs training is far more rigorous and demanding than that of the Marines.

What is the hardest boot camp? ›

Marine boot camp is extremely challenging -- both physically and mentally -- and considered to be tougher than the basic training programs of any of the other military services.

Is the Navy easier than the Marines? ›

It is widely known that the Marine Corps boot camp is one of the most physically, emotionally and spiritually challenging experiences a person can endure so if you're the type of person who likes a challenge, the Marines have ample to offer, but the Navy is no slouch and offers plenty of rigorous training for their ...

What Asvab score do you need to be a Navy Nuke? ›

Requirements: HS diploma or GED. Courses in mechanics, physics or basic electricity are desirable. Minimum ASVAB score of 60 on Mechanical.

How many college credits Do Navy nukes get? ›

The curriculum is comprised of 104 engineering and science credits and four professional development credits. Navy students receive up to 31 credit hours of transfer credits for their Navy Nuclear Power Training School course work, leaving 97 credit hours to be completed at Rensselaer.

What percentage of the US Navy is nuclear? ›

Currently, the U.S. has more than 80 nuclear-powered ships (aircraft carriers, submarines) These NPWs make up about forty percent of major U.S. naval combatants, and they visit over 150 ports in over 50 countries, including approximately 70 ports in the U.S. and three in Japan.

What are the three C's of nuclear safety? ›

As Nuclear Professionals, everyone shall demonstrate respect for nuclear safety and security by: Knowing how your work impacts on Control the power, Cool the fuel and Contain radioactivity (3C's).

What is a level 7 nuclear event? ›

Level 7 is the most serious level on INES and is used to describe an event comprised of “a major release of radioactive material with widespread health and environmental effects requiring implementation of planned and extended countermeasures”. This is only the second Level 7 accident in the nuclear industry.

What rank is Navy nuke? ›

Personnel selected for nuclear training enter the Navy in pay grade E-3. Accelerated advancement to pay grade E-4 is authorized after personnel completes all advancement-in-rate requirements (to include minimum time in rate) and “A” School, provided eligibility in the NF Program is maintained.

What is the highest paying jobs in the nuclear field? ›

High Paying Nuclear Engineer Jobs
  • Radiation Engineer. Salary range: $89,500-$178,500 per year. ...
  • Nuclear Criticality Safety Engineer. Salary range: $75,000-$172,000 per year. ...
  • Nuclear Design Engineer. Salary range: $77,500-$157,000 per year. ...
  • Nuclear Licensing Engineer. ...
  • Nuclear Process Engineer. ...
  • Radiation Safety Officer.

How much does a Navy SEAL make? ›

Salary Ranges for Navy Seals

The salaries of Navy Seals in the US range from $15,929 to $424,998 , with a median salary of $76,394 . The middle 57% of Navy Seals makes between $76,394 and $192,310, with the top 86% making $424,998.

What is the most common job in the Navy? ›

The top three occupations in the U. S. Navy Industry Group are Military, rank not specified, Military enlisted tactical operations & air/weapons specialists & crew members, Firstline enlisted military supervisors, Military officer special & tactical operations leaders, and Aircraft mechanics & service technicians.

Where do Navy nukes go to school? ›

Nuclear Power School
Founded by Admiral Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, USN
Former namesNaval Nuclear Power School
Administrative staff500
LocationGoose Creek , South Carolina , USA32.9659°N 79.9678°W
6 more rows

Are all Navy carriers nuclear? ›

All submarines and aircraft carriers are nuclear-powered. Several cruisers were nuclear-powered but these have all been retired.

What GPA do you need to be a nuclear engineer? ›

Major Requirements:

Direct transfer equivalency to PSU courses Math 140 and Math 141 (8 credits of calculus with analytic geometry), Physics 211 (4 credits of calculus-based physics - mechanics), Chemistry 110 (3 credits of college chemistry), and a minimum of a 2.60 cumulative GPA is required for consideration.

How much money do you make working at a nuclear power plant? ›

National estimates for Nuclear Power Reactor Operators:
Percentile10%50% (Median)
Hourly Wage$ 38.33$ 50.13
Annual Wage (2)$ 79,720$ 104,260

Is a nuclear operator a good career? ›

If you are considering a career as a nuclear operator, be aware that the job field is expected to decline by 16% by 2028. However, if you do get hired on, you can make up to $86,000 per year.

What is the 115K bonus Navy? ›

For a limited time, active duty Future Sailors who leave for boot camp before March can earn up to $115K. Reserve duty Future Sailors who leave for boot camp before March may qualify for bonuses up to $25K.

How much does an e3 nuke make in the Navy? ›

How much does an E-3 Seaman in the Navy get paid? A Seaman is a junior enlisted in the United States Navy at DoD paygrade E-3. A Seaman receives a monthly basic pay salary starting at $2,161 per month, with raises up to $2,436 per month once they have served for over 3 years.

Why is the Navy giving 25000 bonus? ›

We're offering these bonuses because we want to remain competitive,” said Cmdr. David Benham, spokesman for Navy Recruiting Command. Higher bonuses up to $50,000 could be available for certain jobs such as some on submarines and some in the information technology fields, according to the Navy.

Is it hard to become a nuclear power operator? ›

Power plant operators and dispatchers undergo rigorous, long-term on-the-job training and technical instruction. Several years of onsite training and experience are necessary for a worker to become fully qualified.

How long does it take to become a Navy nuke? ›

Enlist in the Navy's Nuclear Field (NF) program and commit to six years of active duty. You'll initially enlist for four years with a 24-month extension to complete education and training requirements.

What Asvab score do I need for Navy nuclear program? ›

Navy Jobs (Rating) ASVAB Line Score Requirements
Navy RatingASVAB Score
Nuclear Power Program MM, EM, ETNuke Test Scores
Navy Diver NDAR+VE= 103 AND MC=51
Operations Specialist OSVE+MK+CS= 148-OR-AR+2MK+GS=198
Personnel Specialist PSVE+MK= 103-OR-VE+MK+CS= 148
76 more rows
Dec 19, 2022

What degree do you need to be a nuclear? ›

Entry-level nuclear engineering jobs commonly require a bachelor's degree in engineering, engineering technologies, or a physical science field. Some jobs, such as those in research and development, require a master's degree or Ph.

What is the highest paying job at a nuclear power plant? ›

The best Nuclear Engineer jobs can pay up to $178,500 per year. As a nuclear engineer, you work in a nuclear power facility or research facility to design instruments and processes that make it easier to draw energy from nuclear material.

How much do Navy nuclear officers make? ›

As of Feb 7, 2023, the average annual pay for a Navy Nuclear Propulsion Officer in the United States is $64,910 a year.

What rank is a Nuclear Engineer in the Navy? ›

Personnel selected for nuclear training enter the Navy in pay grade E-3. Accelerated advancement to pay grade E-4 is authorized after personnel completes all advancement-in-rate requirements (to include minimum time in rate) and “A” School, provided eligibility in the NF Program is maintained.


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