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Secret Defence docs: we need a large civilian workforce for AUKUS nuclear submarine reactors

by Rex Patrick | Apr 26, 2024 | Government, Latest Posts

An internal report that Defence tried to keep secret highlights the high risks involved in growing a civilian workforce to maintain naval nuclear reactors for AUKUS submarines. Rex Patrick reports.

Defence has surrounded the AUKUS submarine project with a blanket of secrecy – everything’s Top Secret so far as they are concerned.

But that’s never been true. Not everything about AUKUS should be security classified, and last week, the Department lost a round in its fight for total secrecy when the Administrative Appeals Tribunal ordered the release of documents that relate to the civilian workforce that Defence will need to take care of the naval reactors on our planned nuclear submarines.

The documents tell a worrying story, highlighting critical risks Defence faces in building the workforce required to safely operate naval nuclear reactors. Defence, an organisation currently some 4,400 workers short of meeting its own uniformed workforce targets, will be asked to grow a civilian workforce to safely install, commission, operate, and sustain six submarine nuclear reactors in the most challenging circumstances.

And while the alarm bells have been rung loudly in the reports, neither Prime Minister Anthony Albanese nor Defence Minister Richard Marles show much sign they’ve heard them. It’s all full steam ahead, and damn the torpedoes!

Reactor care is just an annoying detail, it would seem.

This latest release of information, extracted through FOI from a most reluctant and secretive department, reveals another risk to add to the already risk-overloaded AUKUS project.

AUKUS risks unveiled – is Australia sleepwalking into a submarines disaster?

Nuclear workforce composition

In order to operate eight nuclear reactors, a civilian nuclear workforce of between 1,400 and 2,500 is needed. That includes developing highly skilled jobs in the areas of governance and regulations, management, production and sustainment, safety and assurance, science and health, test and evaluation, and training and education.

That breaks down further into specific jobs: managers and workers, cyber security specialists, solicitors, inspectors, engineers, chemists, metallurgists, medical practitioners, crane operators, electrical and mechanical fitters, nuclear welders and pipe fitters – just to name a few.

They need to have specialist nuclear qualifications, competencies and relevant industry experience.

Nuclear skills

Source: Defence

Nuclear workforce risks

The problem is that Australia just doesn’t have the talent pool with the required mix of qualifications, skills, experience and behaviour to meet the needs. Already we are seeing knowledge and expertise inside our existing small nuclear agencies, ANSTO and ARPANSA, being drained to assist the Australia Submarine Agency – meaning those workers are not performing their regular tasks.

Defence’s internal report, which is very comprehensive, lays out the tasks to fulfil the roles in the context of competition for the workforce from across industries, including space, shipbuilding, mining, and construction.

Nuclear workforce

Source: Defence

The report also examines the social challenges, recognising that

workers will need to live in reasonable proximity to nuclear facilities, something their families may not be too keen to do.

And it suggests that the availability of experienced workers in the United States and United Kingdom, the only international jurisdictions Defence can draw workers from on account of AUKUS security clearance requirements, will be limited (and no doubt poaching of experts from these jurisdictions will cause relationship issues).

On the security clearance front, the report mentions a nine-month delay in getting positive vetting outcomes (at an average cost of $15,280 per person) from its own organisation; this is an example of a long-standing problem that Defence has been quite unable to fix.

Other risks range from lack of available skilled workers, difficulties in developing experience (which will require personnel to be embedded in US or UK reactor operators and their workforce) and much uncertainty and lack of detail in the AUKUS program itself.

Nuclear workforce risks

Source: Defence

Nuclear workforce mix

The civilian nuclear workforce requires more people who are vocationally qualified (65%) than qualified through higher education (35%). That presents a mismatch with trends in the Australian workforce where there has been significant growth in the bachelor’s degree or higher category and where enrolments in vocational training have declined.

The geography of AUKUS also presents a problem. The AUKUS submarines will be built in SA and supported from WA, the mainland states with the lowest number of mechanical, electrical, mining, industrial and production engineers in their workforce.

Nuclear workforce mix

Source: Defence

The risk paradox

The report does identify a number of risk management strategies that the Senate and Auditor General can examine moving forward, but the fact is:

Defence is simply no good at risk management.

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The paradox is that the test of whether Defence has the necessary appreciation for risk is whether it would be silly enough to proceed with an extremely risky project like AUKUS in the first place. They have already failed that test.

Professional project managers would most likely not have recommended proceeding with AUKUS.

Vice Admiral Mead heads the AUKUS project. He was a great ship captain, but just as a sane person wouldn’t take a project manager and anoint them ‘ship captain’, no sane person would take a ship captain and anoint them ‘project manager’ – and certainly not for Australia’s biggest project of all time.

To be fair, Defence has initiated some bureaucratic processes to address the concerns raised, but the magnitude of the issue brings likely certainty they will fail.

Who’s to blame?

In some sense, you can’t blame the Navy, they just want to buy their ‘Ferrari’ submarine.

The problem is the political leadership that approves and backs these crazy budget-draining plans.

But the politicians won’t be held accountable. By the time we get to a point, if indeed we do get to a point where we are operating a Virginia Class submarine without an experienced civilian workforce supporting Defence, Albanese and Marles will be well and truly gone.

Albanese will be gone because he will have served his time and moved on. Marles will be gone because no one will want anything to do with the political ineptitude that he’s demonstrated in backing the AUKUS program.

It will be a $368B poorer community that will be left to suffer the half-baked AUKUS program and hopefully not an overcooked submarine nuclear reactor.

I just want a Ferrari, sorry, a nuclear submarine, no matter the cost


Rex Patrick is a former Senator for South Australia and earlier a submariner in the armed forces. Best known as an anti-corruption and transparency crusader -

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