Skills shortage threatens MoD nuclear programmes

A shortage of skilled nuclear personnel within the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the Royal Navy is “the principal threat to the delivery of nuclear safety”, according to an internal MoD report.

The Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator (DNSR) warns in its recently published annual report for 2014-15 that the skills shortage is a “strategic issue” and that “vulnerability remains” in the small and highly skilled group of personnel undertaking nuclear work.

Difficulty in recruiting and retaining nuclear suitably qualified and experienced personnel is a long term issue which has been highlighted by DNSR for the past ten years.  Despite this, the problem will require “sustained attention to ensure continued safe delivery of the defence nuclear programme over the medium to long term,” according to the report.

Organisational capability within MoD in the face of cutbacks to resources and departmental reorganisation is listed as another key issue challenging nuclear safety, and the report also points out that delays in constructing new facilities have forced MoD to extend the lives of ageing buildings.  “Slippage to the delivery of key projects will necessitate the continued use of current facilities for an extended period,” the report says. “Commitment and attention is required to safely manage ageing plant, facilities and infrastructure across the defence nuclear programme.”

Delays in the programmes for building new Astute and Successor class submarines mean that “attention is required to ensure maintenance of adequate safety performance.”

Pressures on nuclear staffing are expected to increase over the next few years with plans to build new Trident submarines and expand the civil nuclear power sector.  The DNSR report points out that nuclear skills are “increasingly at a premium”.

“The situation is compounded further, across the civil and defence nuclear programmes, by a largely ageing demographic and the pull from other high consequence industries, such as offshore oil and gas.”

Whilst safety has not been compromised, the report says, the lack of resilience “increases the potential for project and programme delays.”

Dr Phil Johnstone, a nuclear specialist from the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex, told the 'Ferret' news platform that the issues raised by the DNSR report were “concerning”.

As a result of MoD programmes for building new nuclear-powered submarines, upgrading Trident warheads, and decommissioning out-of-service submarines,  “it must be questioned whether there will be sufficient numbers of highly skilled experienced workers to maintain the rigorous regulatory standards and safety culture surrounding such activities,” said Johnstone.

“The pressures on maintaining a skills base for nuclear engineering, regulation and safety are set to be immense,” he said.

“In my opinion we are facing an unprecedented critical juncture in terms of the challenges of regulating such a diverse range of nuclear activities that will ultimately require substantial amounts of public money being spent on UK nuclear once again.”

Recent media reports claim that nuclear staffing shortages within the MoD are nearing a “critical” point, with the Royal Navy's Submarine Service finding it particularly difficult to attract new recruits.  A senior officer involved in the recruitment programme said “There are recruits who want to serve in submarines, but they are getting harder to find and a massive challenge is keeping them in the Navy – many serve a few years and leave”.

The shortages are adding to pressure on personnel already working on submarines.  One serving submariner was reported as saying: “We’re all being asked to do extra tours and there’s a lot of frustration.

“There are key skill gaps, but the real problem is that the service just isn’t attracting younger sailors”.

The Navy has introduced a number of financial incentives to attract personnel to its engineering and submarine programmes, including the introduction of hefty “recruitment and retention allowances” in 2013.  New submariners are paid a £5,000 “golden hello” on qualifying as submariners, and can expect to be paid up to 25% more than the equivalent General Service posts, and those reaching the end of their service are being offered up to £25,000 to continue.

Earlier this year the Navy organised a programme of expenses paid weekend trips to Scotland to encourage sailors and their families to relocate to the Faslane submarine base. 

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