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The sub’s commanding officer, Cmdr. Charles Maher, was relieved of duty within two weeks. He wasn’t accused being involved in the cheating, but the Navy said he fostered an environment that failed to uphold the expected standards of integrity. He did not respond to messages left by the AP.

Of the 13 crew members who were punished, only three returned to the Memphis for its final deployment. The other crew members were reassigned, kicked out of the Navy or are awaiting possible dismissal, said Navy Lt. Jennifer Cragg, a submarine group spokeswoman at Naval Submarine Base New London in Groton. The 33-year-old submarine was decommissioned in April.

John Fischer, a former officer who used to help oversee exams from a Navy base in Washington state, said the tests are about much more than the knowledge displayed by individual test-takers. Officers aboard each sub create their answer keys, and the process is meant to sharpen the superiors’ skills as well. He said the exams are supposed to be difficult, with a certain number of failures designed in to identify areas for improvement.

He said the collegial atmosphere aboard a submarine, where exams are administered by fellow shipmates and even friends, could be a factor in the cheating.

“If you get one guy in there who doesn’t have the integrity to do the right thing, then it can progress really easily,” said Fischer, who now works as a manufacturing engineer.

Like the other ex-officers interviewed for the story, Fischer said the safety of the reactors is not in question.

A spokesman for Naval Reactors, the agency that oversees the Navy’s nuclear propulsion program, said the Navy works diligently to understand the root causes of any cheating case and to make changes. Spokesman Thomas Dougan said that out of 16,000 nuclear-trained officers and enlisted sailors taking several exams annually, there are on average one or two cheating cases per year that result in the removal of nuclear qualifications. Most cases involve only a few sailors, he said.

Dougan said the written exams are one of several measures used to assess the effectiveness of a continuing training program, and the kind of cheating that occurred on the Memphis would not put the ship or reactor plant at risk.

He said commanders use other measures, including supervisors’ observations, drills and oral exams, to assess how well-trained crews are.

On the Memphis, the Navy investigation concluded that some of the mechanical operators decided to cheat partly because problems with the exam’s design prevented questions from lining up with the expected answers. Five of eight sailors stopped using the answer keys after the problems with the exams were addressed, the report said. It suggested that the exam program could be improved by requiring that all qualification exams be proctored.

In light of the scandal, Rousselow said squadron commanders and commanding officers have been encouraged to make any changes that might be necessary to prevent such cheating. She said the Navy was leaving it up to commanders to determine what steps if any should be taken to implement lessons learned from the Memphis.