GOOSE CREEK - The Navy announced Wednesday at least 34 sailors are being kicked out for their role in a years-long cheating scandal at the nuclear training school here, prompting ranking officers to pledge a renewed commitment to teaching ethical conduct and promoting better security of its exams.
The 34 sailors were all attempting to qualify for supervisory instructor roles tied to two nuclear propulsion plants used as live classrooms for teaching students to handle ship-board nuclear reactors.
The reactors are part of the Nuclear Power Training Unit and are kept on ships moored at the Naval Weapons Station.
They are of the kind used in propulsion systems for the Navy's fleet of 82 submarines and aircraft carriers.
The enlisted sailors have had their security clearances revoked and are being processed for "administrative separation from the U.S. Naval service," the Navy said.
The cheating conspiracy dates back to at least 2007. It involved a written exam question and answer bank that had been removed from a "controlled system" and then shared with some members of the staff prior to taking the test, said Tom Dougan, public affairs spokesman for the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program.
The names of those sailors involved were not released. It is not known how many may still be in the Charleston area. Some were reassigned once the investigation was launched. Neither the instructors nor the students are involved in handling nuclear weapons.
The Navy announced in February that it was investigating 30 or more senior sailors after word of the alleged cheating was detected. Wednesday's disciplines were disclosed by Adm. John M. Richardson, director of Naval Reactors.
"There was never any question" that the reactors were being operated safely, Richardson said in an interview with The Associated Press in Washington.
The admiral also said he was "loaded for bear" at the outset of the investigation, unconvinced the cheating was confined to a single training unit. He now believes that the scandal had not spread beyond the sailors here, which was one reason the ring managed to operate so long without being discovered.
In addition to the 34 who are being administratively discharged from the Navy, two more who were implicated as "minimal" participants had their non-criminal punishment suspended due to their "strong potential for rehabilitation."
Another 32 sailors were implicated by investigators but later exonerated by Richardson, and he gave one officer a verbal warning. The officer, whom Richardson declined to identify by name or rank, was not accused of participating in the cheating. He was faulted for "deficiencies" in his oversight of the exam program, but Richardson said this was not severe enough to merit punishment.
The Navy investigation also concluded that commanders were not directly at fault. The 68 implicated sailors are in addition to the 10 whom Richardson said are believed to have been "at the center" of the cheating ring and remain under investigation by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service.
Richardson said he met individually with each of the accused and heard at least two common themes: a belief that there was little risk of getting caught, and a work environment at the nuclear training site that created stresses and pressures on the approximately 300 sailors who serve as instructors.
Richardson said the accused at Charleston fell into two main categories: Sailors who cheated on the tests; and sailors who enabled the cheating by providing answers in advance to others taking the test and tipping them off about what test they would be given.
Richardson called the latter group of 10 sailors the ringleaders and said their offenses are considered more serious because they had facilitated the illicit transfer of classified test answers.
An extensive investigation ordered by Richardson and led by Rear Adm. Kenneth M. Perry found that an electronic master file of "engineering watch supervisor" tests and answers was illegally removed from a Navy computer "sometime before 2007." Investigators failed to identify who took it or exactly when.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.