I Am the Reactor Operator

What follows is the personal statement that I submitted to Columbia and NYU as part of my college applications. I was always going to end up talking about the Navy, submarines, and the nuclear pipeline. It was my life for the past six years, there was no avoiding it. I needed to pick a single experience that could relate to all of that and also myself as an individual, inside six-hundred fifty words. Ultimately the essay needed to highlight why I was a good choice to admit to these prestigious institutions, not educate the reader about submarines.

The result is not a factually accurate account of nuclear reactors, submarines, Chief Holman, or for that matter myself. If you know anything about these things or these people, please forgive some poetic license, I really needed to get into college. If you ever stood on a watch team with me as your Reactor Operator, I apologize twice over.

Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, please share your story.

“I am the Reactor Operator”

These are the first words out of my mouth as I take station in front of the Reactor Plant Control Panel. The journey here has been a long one, starting at a Navy recruiting station on Long Island with a plane ticket to Chicago for basic training. Then came two years in South Carolina, crash courses in electronics, physics, mechanical principles and thermohydraulics. This knowledge was refined with 12-hour shifts on Cold War era submarines, kept alive by the Navy as a proving ground for trainees.

The last year has been spent working and learning on a very different platform, the most powerful submarine in the fleet. The Navy only built three Seawolf-class subs before Congress caught on to their three-billion dollar price tag and today one of their massive propulsion reactors belongs to me. I revel in my success for less than an hour before it all starts to come apart.

The audible alarm is underwhelming, like a gnat that has found its way into your ear, but I don’t need it to know something is wrong. Every meter and indication is screaming the same thing, my reactor has been shutdown rapidly and unceremoniously. This is called a scram, and it means the crew have decided to take their newly minted Reactor Operator for a test drive. The Reactor Control Division Chief enters the control room and takes station behind me. He is here to judge my performance, it’s now my job to bring my reactor back to life.

The process feels automatic as muscle memory and instinct take over, continually cross-checked with evidence from my indications. Three years ago I wouldn’t have been able to succeed here, in some ways the teenager from Long Island is gone. In his place is someone with confidence and discipline, expected from military training, but also something more. The man standing before the Reactor Plant Control Panel takes ownership of his work, responsibility for his decisions, and has the integrity to accept the consequences for his actions. Ownership, responsibility, and integrity are the roots of trust and they are why I have been given control of my reactor.

Trying not to betray my excitement I announce, “The reactor is critical.” I’ve stoked the embers back into a small flame, but there’s no time to relax. Three bells ring on the panel next to me, where the Throttleman controls the main engines. They’re announcing that the Captain has ordered maximum power to the engines. This is only done in cases of emergency, avoiding collisions — or an enemy torpedo. Throttleman’s eyes are locked on me, imprudent action here can destabilize conditions in my reactor, I have the option of ordering a cautious approach.

I give the order, “Answer one-hundred percent power,” and the race is on.

Throttleman wings open his throttles and the main engines gain hundreds of RPM. I slam my coolant pumps into their fastest speeds and lock my controls to draw out control rods. The engines are pulling heat out of my core faster than I can restore it, but I have an ace up my sleeve. Naval reactors can exceed their power limits for short periods of time. These transient limits are rarely invoked, but I’m confident in my abilities and training. I push towards the summit of my reactor’s capabilities and carve my name at the top.

Another bell rings; Captain is requesting a slower speed. Throttleman shuts his throttles and I pull my reactor back from the brink. Core conditions stabilize for the first time since the alarm. The Reactor Control Division Chief pulls a small smile and leaves with only a single word, “Good.” I have passed my final test.

Ownership, responsibility, and integrity are just words on a page until realized through action. A submariner untested by hardship can only call himself a trainee.

I am the Reactor Operator.

I was admitted to NYU Tandon, and I’m forever grateful to the people who got me there.