Videos: Today's Military

    A Naval Nuclear Engineer(03:51)

    Navy Lt. Jean Barnwell shares how her passion for math led to an exciting career as a nuclear engineer. Barnwell helps design the reactors that power Navy vessels, and she also inspects vessels to make sure everything is working properly.

    To become a naval nuclear engineer, an undergraduate can enroll in the Nuclear Propulsion Officer Candidate (NUPOC) program. Those who already have college degrees can attend Officer Candidate School and nuclear propulsion advanced training. 

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Jean Barnwell: Well, I guess in high school physics I got the bug, kind of got really excited about solving problems, really geeky stuff like that. Actually, my physics teacher wanted me to be a physicist, but I thought, you know, solving problems was really more interesting, and so I decided to go to MIT.

As part of being in the Navy, I've gotten my master's degree in mechanical engineering and got sent off to Naval Reactors. It actually all started after World War II when Congress decided that it was the right time to actually harness the atom for nuclear propulsion, and Admiral Rickover, who started the entire program, basically put together the naval nuclear propulsion program.

Actually Naval Reactors is a very small headquarters. We're only about 200 to 250 engineers at headquarters, and we have ultimate control, ultimate management over all of the facilities.

Naval Reactors is not only the design entity, but also the regulator. So we self-regulate, which is a very important part of what we do, and we take that very seriously. One aspect of that is going out to ships to ensure that the crew is ready to operate the reactor in a safe manner, and you're asking really tough questions, and what's really amazing is that they know the answers.

Today, we're at the U.S.S. Nimitz, which is one of the 10 aircraft carriers that the United States Navy has, so it's the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. Actually, I'm really excited because today was one of those great opportunities for us to get out of the office and actually see the ship and we've just kind of been asking questions, make sure the crew's ready to operate the ship safely.

Well, how do you think the drill team performed in monitoring the evolution?

Speaker 1: When I saw it, I wasn't down on the plane, of course. But from what we saw in the locker, I thought they did a pretty good job.

Jean Barnwell: Working at Naval Reactors is kind of like having a civilian job. I live at home. I go to work in civilian clothes. I come home at night. I don't deploy. That was established actually back by Rickover, and the intent was that he didn't want the decisions that we made to be based on our rank. He wanted all the decisions that were made at headquarters to be technically based.

We've got a very flexible schedule. Instead of taking lunch, we'll actually go work out. So you've been working on a tough problem all morning, and you just take a break and you say, "I'm going to go for a run." It clears the cobwebs. I think about new engineering challenges, how to, how to solve something, get into a groove, start thinking about the problem, and sure enough, by the time you get back, you know, you've got the solution.

I think there's kind of a duality to what we do that kind of gives you that holistic appreciation for what the naval nuclear propulsion program is. We not only are supporting the existing fleet, but we're also looking to the future. I mean, we've been designing ships for over 60 years, you know, the over 136 million miles steamed. And the safety record is just outstanding. So it's also fascinating, I guess. Right after we created our first submarine, the Nautilus, we actually created the first commercial nuclear power plant. It makes you feel really important that you're a part of that legacy.

Hi. My name is Jean Barnwell, and I'm a lieutenant in the United States Navy, and I'm a Naval Reactors engineer.