Outlook 2012: Region's naval presence a lucrative, well-kept secret
MILTON Hundreds of young sailors and their military instructors are in the region because of the Kenneth A. Kesselring naval nuclear training site in West Milton, the Navy's only land-based nuclear propulsion training facility.
The work at Kesselring takes place behind security fences and barrier gates and is also hidden from the outside world by hundreds of acres of woods.
The secretive Kesselring site is where sailors come to practice operating ship-board nuclear propulsion systems, those that power nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers. There are two small prototype nuclear reactors on site.
Combining the site's military and civilian personnel, more than 2,000 people work there. All live off-base, meaning they spend their money locally for housing, food and entertainment.
"I think they're great for our community. They're quality jobs, and they are spending money in our establishments," said Milton town Supervisor Dan Lewza.
Kesselring is located on an enormous 3,900-acre property split between Milton and Galway in rural western Saratoga County -- an area where the last thing most people would expect would be a nuclear reactor complex. But the Navy has been there for more than 50 years, since the training complex was built in the 1950s.
About 1,300 sailors and officers are trained there each year, supported by about 500 other naval personnel and 400 workers employed by the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory in Niskayuna, which manages the site. The site runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
"At the Kesselring site, core of the training program involves hands-on operation of shipboard-like reactor plants under the instruction of senior qualified Navy and civilian personnel," said Gene Terwilliger, a spokesman for Knolls, which is owned by Bechtel Marine Propulsion Corp.
Since the first sailors graduated from Kesselring in 1955-56, about 50,000 have passed through the six-month program, their last stop before they head to sea.
Some live in naval housing in Saratoga Springs, but others live in apartments, rented houses or mobile homes in communities like Milton, Ballston Spa and Saratoga Springs.
Landlords generally find them to be reliable tenants, and -- given their age and numbers -- few get in trouble with the law.
"The Navy does a very good job of policing its own," said Thomas Schroeder, a Milton town justice and retired nuclear training instructor at the site.
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Schroeder came through Kesselring as a student in the 1970s and returned as a master chief and instructor from 1990-93. He is one of many retired sailors who settled in the area.
"It's a nice community, and it's a growing community, and it's very hospitable to the military," he said.
Schroeder said students are assigned to work 12-hour rotating shifts on the site's two nuclear reactors, which also helps keep them out of trouble.
"There really isn't a lot of free time when you're a student," he said. "It's a very intensive program."
For the trainees, their stay at Kesselring is the last stop in a rigorous preparation process that lasts about two years. Here, they work on real nuclear reactors, before being assigned to one of the Navy's roughly 80 nuclear-powered submarines or aircraft carriers.
Kesselring also has hundreds of civilian employees. Overall operations management and reactor maintenance are the responsibility of KAPL, which has about 2,600 total employees between Niskayuna and West Milton. KAPL's primary mission is to develop and improve naval nuclear propulsion technology.
Under a complex arrangement, the U.S. Department of Energy owns the Kesselring site and operates it in partnership with the Navy. KAPL has a contract to maintain the reactors and help train its nuclear propulsion specialists, as well as conduct its own research.
A large subcontractor maintains the nuclear reactors, under contract with KAPL. Newport News Shipbuilding in January replaced the previous subcontractor, Electric Boat, but kept most of the same skilled workers.
Newport News signed a five-year base period contract valued at $195 million, with a five-year option valued at $395 million, according to the company.
The development of Kesselring began in 1948-49, when the federal government bought out 79 farmers and other landowners, making way for a training facility for the fledging nuclear propulsion program.
The reactors were already being developed by Knolls, which was owned at the time by General Electric.
The site is said to have been personally selected by Admiral Hyman Rickover, the legendary founder of the naval nuclear propulsion program.
Today, the Kesselring site has two small nuclear reactors. That's down from four reactors as recently as 1990.