Serving onboard the ultimate tool of diplomacy Surface Warfare Officer (Nuclear Aircraft Carriers)

The Navy operates some of the world’s most technologically advanced ships and equipment – and nothing projects naval power and capability more dramatically and instantaneously than its Fleet of nuclear aircraft carriers. Surface Warfare Officers (SWOs) with advanced nuclear training oversee the propulsion systems and personnel aboard these multibillion-dollar, megaton cities at sea. Managing the operational intricacies that allow these marvels of technology to steam millions of miles incident-free. Offering critical support to the missions and tactics that so often depend on them.

If you want to combine technical know-how with a desire to lead, consider taking command of your future as an Officer in the Surface Warfare (Nuclear) community of America’s Navy. Being a Surface Warfare Officer armed with additional training in the fundamentals of Navy Nuclear Propulsion equates to being one of the most sought after professionals in today’s Navy – and an extension of our nation’s greatest tool of diplomacy.

Job Description

Because of their potential to carry so much of the Navy’s capabilities forward, aircraft carriers are at the core of ongoing missions – as are the Officers who head up the various departments on board. The extensive training process in place prepares a select group of Officers to harness the power of these icons of the Navy Fleet.

Initial time down this career path is spent gaining the background to earn qualification as a Surface Warfare Officer on conventionally powered ships. Then comes the advanced nuclear training. After mastering the engineering spaces and the theories behind nuclear power, Nuclear Surface Warfare Officers begin overseeing key day-to-day operations on a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, specifically managing the onboard nuclear reactor and propulsion plant.

Specific Responsibilities

Nuclear Surface Warfare Officers have the responsibility of ensuring that Sailors in their division maintain and operate the ship’s complex systems – safely and efficiently.

As a Surface Warfare Officer aboard nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, you’ll find yourself among a core group of intelligent, goal-driven men and women – doing important and challenging work that leads to a lifelong sense of responsibility. Being highly competitive and comprehensive, it’s no coincidence that the valuable nuclear training received here often directly transfers to civilian careers in executive-level management as well as many technological and high-tech specialty systems.

Work Environment

Nuclear Surface Warfare Officers are exposed to a variety of different work environments – from academic settings to training on prototype units to eventual sea tours and shore assignments. The time spent on conventional ships and nuclear-powered aircraft carriers involve deployments of a few to several months at a time. Here, however, you will find exposure to the broadest representation of people and capabilities in any one place in the Navy.

Once fully qualified, members may go on to hold positions that involve instructing, advising, consulting, recruiting or even commanding surface ships.

Training and Advancement

Upon graduation from college, the formal training process of becoming an Officer in the Naval Nuclear Propulsion program is officially underway. For those going the Surface Warfare Officer (Nuclear) route, the first step is Officer Candidate School (OCS) – a 12-week course in Newport, Rhode Island, that is tailored to train and prepare college graduates to become commissioned as Navy Line Officers.

Upon completion of OCS and an initial Sea Tour, newly qualified Surface Warfare Officers move on to receive the advanced training that is at the core of Navy Nuclear Propulsion. This includes an academic curriculum that is recognized as one of the most difficult in the world – rivaling the top-notch nuclear programs at universities such as Harvard and MIT. And experientially, the hands-on application of what is learned – in settings at sea and ashore – is in a class by itself.

First Sea Tour
First comes assignment as a Division Officer on a conventional surface ship, commanding a team of Sailors responsible for a certain component of the ship – anything from electronics to weapons to engineering systems. Here, Officers are working toward Surface Warfare qualification – earning the right to wear the coveted Surface Warfare Officer insignia and taking on all the responsibilities that go with it. This tour alternates between deployments, patrols, days in port, maintenance, local operations and leave.

Naval Nuclear Power School (NNPS)
Through Naval Nuclear Power Training Command (NNPTC), Officers will attend Nuclear Power School in Charleston, South Carolina. This 24-week graduate-level course of intensive study covers a variety of science and technology-based subjects: from ordinary and partial differential equations to thermodynamics to reactor dynamics. NNPS provides the foundation of knowledge necessary for a theoretical understanding of nuclear propulsion.

Nuclear Power Training Unit (NPTU)
Often referred to as Prototype, this 26-week phase of the learning process involves hands-on training at one of two NPTUs – in either Charleston, South Carolina, or Ballston Spa, New York – where there are several reactor prototypes in operation. Here, Officers apply the concepts learned at Nuclear Power School – studying systems and components of a nuclear propulsion plant and working with all the associated systems of a full-scale operating plant. The training culminates with qualification as Engineering Officer of the Watch.

Second Sea Tour
With proven abilities as a Surface Warfare Officer on a conventional ship and nuclear training, the next assignment is as a division Officer in the engineering plant of a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. This tour alternates between deployments, patrols, days in port, maintenance, local operations and leave.

Shore Assignment
After completing their sea tours, Surface Warfare Officers may fill positions anywhere from Nuclear Power School to Prototype to other jobs ashore. They may be selected to serve on high-level staffs, commands and strategic projects, or they may elect to work in recruitment positions or further their education at Naval Postgraduate School (NPGS). The ultimate goal for many: to one day command their own surface ship.

Education Opportunities

For qualifying college graduates, Navy Nuclear Propulsion is a door leading to industry leadership and lifelong learning. Groundbreaking research and high-level civilian collaborations. Work that extends far beyond the military to impact the world at large.

For current undergraduate students who meet the prerequisite background, especially those pursuing preferred majors such as mathematics, engineering, physics or chemistry, there’s all of the above to look forward to – plus the chance to get paid while finishing school.

If accepted into the Nuclear Propulsion Officer Candidate (NUPOC) program as an aspiring Surface Warfare Officer (Nuclear), you can:

  • Receive salary and benefits up to $168,300 and start receiving this funding up to 30 months prior to college graduation
  • Be eligible to receive a $15,000 selection bonus once accepted into the NUPOC program plus an additional $2,000 bonus upon completion of nuclear propulsion training
  • Enjoy military health-care benefits while you are a student in the program

And once out of school, you’ll have a position waiting as a respected professional and Officer affiliated with one of the most accomplished nuclear-power programs on earth. Following the Surface Officer (Nuclear) path leads to an advanced education and accelerated hands-on experience like nowhere else.


Because of the exclusive nature of the NUPOC program and the magnitude of the responsibilities members will take on from a young age, requirements to become a candidate are comprehensive – and competition for acceptance is great.

The NUPOC program is open to both men and women. Beyond that, the following basic qualification criteria apply.

Age and Health
To be an eligible candidate, you must:

  • Be a U.S. citizen
  • Be at least 19 years of age and less than 29 years of age at the time of commissioning – waivers up to age 31 may be available for Surface Warfare Officer (Nuclear) positions
  • Meet the physical standards of the Navy

Candidates must be graduates or students of an accredited college or university in the United States or in a United States territory pursuing a BA, BS or MS (preferably majoring in mathematics, engineering, physics, chemistry or other technical areas). Those still in school may apply as early as their sophomore year of college and must have:

  • Completed one academic year of calculus
  • Completed one academic year of calculus-based physics
  • A competitive GPA and a minimum grade of “C” in all technical courses

NUPOC Interview
All students who apply to the NUPOC program go through a rigorous screening process and are then selected for a personal interview with the Director of Naval Reactors in Washington, D.C.

The first part of the interview process focuses on technical questions from calculus, physics and other technical courses. The majority of the questions are from calculus and physics, and you may be asked questions from other topics in your major. This part of the interview process typically lasts 30–40 minutes and contains two to four major questions per interview.

The second part of the interview process involves meeting with Admiral John Richardson, the current director of the Naval Nuclear Propulsion program. During this interview, he will review your transcripts and the evaluations from your technical interviews, and he will assess your communication skills, interests and motivation for the program. Admiral Richardson personally selects all prospective Nuclear Officers.

VIP Tour
If you’re a qualified Nuclear Propulsion Officer candidate, the Navy offers a two-day VIP trip that allows you to immerse yourself in this world. Tour the flight deck of an aircraft carrier, or walk through the torpedo room of a submarine. Interact with current and prospective Officers and ask questions. Learn about the rich history of the Navy and its nuclear-power program. This is a chance to learn firsthand what it may be like to launch your future as a Nuclear-trained Officer in the Navy.

Download a NUPOC Application Checklist
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Download the Navy Recruiting Command’s NUPOC Study Guide
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After the Navy

What consistently sets those with experience in the Nuclear Navy apart is focused intellect with the ability to think outside the box. Unrelenting passion to answer the questions others find incomprehensible. And demonstrated leadership – whatever the challenge, whatever form it takes.

America’s Navy accelerates the development of those with intelligence, character and motivation and channels all that into real-world applications. Skills are nurtured. Creative problem solving is encouraged. Opportunities to grow and control the path your career takes are readily available. Whether it’s continuing education, world-class facilities or professional funding, the infrastructure is already in place.

After fulfilling an initial commitment of 5 to 5.5 years, you could use your invaluable experience to pursue esteemed leadership, research, teaching and advisory positions in the Navy. Or you could go on to pursue any of a multitude of possibilities that await former Nuclear Officers in the civilian sector.