Operational Reactor Safeguards Exam (ORSE) 

These four letters struck sheer terror into the hearts of all submarine CO, XO and Engineer Officers.  Every year, each ship’s crew would be visited by an ORSE Team.  The Team was comprised of senior naval officers with nuclear backgrounds; newly minted EOs, COs who were between ship command and something higher, and PCOs who were going on to command duty. 

Their job was to examine a nuclear ship’s crew as to their ability to safely operate a naval nuclear reactor.  They would ride a ship for several days, going through all of the Engineering Department paperwork, observing various engineering drills, quizzing various nukes at anytime, anywhere, and about anything related to the reactor plant.  They inspected everything.  I personally observed a “bird” Captain crawl out of the bilge under the diesel generator with a white rag and a flashlight, and luckily, no smudges.  

Nothing, no one, nowhere on board was exempt.  These people reported directly to “the Admiral”.  Think Spanish Inquisition only with more power, and reporting directly to God. 

Pity the crew that flunked their ORSE.  First, this was a big black mark on the fitness records of the CO, XO, and EO. An otherwise shining career could abruptly end with bad ORSE grades.  Next, the crew would be condemned to intensive retraining; a self-inflicted Hell-on-Boat, and then the re-exam.  If you flunked the re-exam, heads would roll and blood would flow. 

Our first Blue Crew ORSE was at the end of our shakedown cruise.  In the training work up for the Exam, we did some things that most people would consider to be on the far, far side of good judgment. 

During the training period, a gasket in a steam system flange blew out.  We were steaming along, fat dumb and happy, when POW!  There was a sudden roar and small “snow” storm in the engine room behind the “bromide” chiller.  Normally this would be no big deal, except that this particular gasket was in a flange between the port turbine generator throttle block and the root valve.   

It spewed high pressure, high temperature steam and screamed like a banshee. Steam is neat stuff.  It is invisible.  The white stuff you see jetting out of teakettle is condensed steam or water vapor. In the movie the Sand Pebbles, this was called “ded stim”.  On the other hand, “live stim”, invisible steam at high pressure and temperature can cut through steel and lesser material (sailors) like a hot knife through warm butter. 

The steam leak shredded the steam pipe lagging (the cause of the snow storm) and began eating its way through the steel flanges.  The immediate response to this event was to freeze where you were.  If you were still alive and conscious, you could move on to the next step.  Very gingerly and cautiously you would feel your way around the blow out area with a broom or something with a LONG handle to locate the steam plume.  When the end of the broom exploded, you knew you had found it.  Once the exact location of the steam leak and the steam plume were known, the root valve could be safely approached and shut.  This would isolate the steam leak from the steam source, the Main Steam Header.  Of course you would loose the port turbine generator, but we had two and could safely operate the ship on the starboard TG alone. 

Since the steam leak had cut the flange seats, simply replacing the gasket would not correct the problem.  The flanges need to be re-welded and ground true or replaced.  No at-sea fix here, this was yard work. 

However, between our current position and the yard repair stood ORSE.  It was scheduled, and nothing could reschedule it.  Nothing.  So Captain Overhaul deemed that training and drilling would continue unabated.  Each time an engineering drill that required both turbine generators was to be run, the steam leak area was cordoned off and the port TG place on-line.  High pressure, high temperature main steam header steam would blast into the engine room for the duration of the drill.  After the drill, the port TG was secured and the steam leak isolated until the next drill.  Each drill would cause additional significant steam cutting of the flanges, and a progressively larger steam leak. 

And so it came to pass that the ORSE Team arrived onboard for our exam.  The ORSE Team never directed the ship’s drills.  The ship would present a slate of proposed drills to be run, and the ORSE Team would observe and comment.  They never direct, initiate, or otherwise actively participate in the management of the drills.  The blood would not be on their hands.  Drill management and training in general were some the areas that the ship was graded on. 

Captain Overhaul explained to them that we had a major steam leak in the engine room but that we would happily run drills with the MAJOR STEAM LEAK to meet their needs. The ORSE Team simply observed and noted.  

God had mercy on the Blue Crew and did not punish us for the questionable decisions and other transgressions of Captain Overhaul.  We passed ORSE, and the flanges and damaged steam piping were repaired when we returned to Groton.

Charlie Winterfeldt

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