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Neil Martin

Australia faces an ‘incredibly difficult’ task over the next 15 to 20 years to train enough people to support the AUKUS nuclear submarine program.

And there are numerous significant hurdles to overcome to meet the proposed schedules which aim to deliver a conventionally-armed, nuclear-powered submarine capability as early as the early 2030s.

That is the view of Dr Edward Obbard, who heads the nuclear engineering program at UNSW Sydney and has analysed the potential numbers of specially trained workers who will be required to build, operate and maintain the new fleet of subs.  

Read more: Nuclear submarines not the first step to nuclear weapons, says UNSW expert

Details regarding the AUKUS agreement – which is a trilateral security pact between Australia, the UK and USA – were announced in March, which revealed that even more nuclear-trained personnel would be required than was first thought.

As well as the eight Australian-built SSN-AUKUS nuclear-powered submarines that were already widely expected, it was also disclosed that USA would first be selling three Virginia Class submarines, subject to US Congressional approval, with the option for two more if required.

However, as early as 2027, UK and US nuclear-powered submarines will be stationed out of HMAS Stirling near Perth to help Australia build the necessary operational capabilities and skills to be ready to safely and securely own, operate, maintain and regulate its own fleet of nuclear-powered submarines just a few years later.

Australian Defence Force Academy trainee

A trainee at the Australian Defence Force Academy at UNSW Canberra. Nuclear engineering academic Dr Edward Obbard estimates that more than 8000 people will need some sort of nuclear training to crew and service the submarines being delivered as part of the AUKUS agreement. Photo from UNSW

And those timelines mean it’s already a furious race against the clock to provide the relevant nuclear training, according to Dr Obbard.

“I think this will be incredibly difficult and we are going to have to work amazingly hard to meet the schedules that have been announced,” he said.

“It’s only four years until 2027 and that is when nuclear-powered submarines will be coming to Australia and we will have to have people trained up to work on them and help maintain them, while also getting experience of the nuclear systems involved.

“It does not sound very far away to me and right now there are insufficient numbers of trained experts to support a sovereign nuclear propulsion program.

“To understand how we can address the shortage, you need to know how suitably qualified and experienced people are grouped in three tiers.”

Tier 1: Nuclear experts

Dr Obbard’s analysis, based on nuclear-trained personnel supporting the US Navy’s 70-strong submarine fleet, indicates that more than 200 subject matter experts will be needed in Australia to make top-level decisions regarding the eight new SSN-AUKUS subs.

These experts would ideally have at least 20 years’ experience in nuclear technology, which presents a problem for Australia given nuclear power has been banned by legislation since 1998.

“Those top tier people are subject matter experts and have to make decisions based on cutting-edge science,” says Dr Obbard.

US Navy ceremony

Australia may have to use senior officers from the US Navy and Royal Navy in the early period of the AUKUS agreement, given the lack of expertise and experience domestically commanding nuclear-powered submarines. Photo from Shutterstock

“They need to be world experts in specific areas related to the submarines or the nuclear power plant, and to get to that point they will likely have done research and obtained PhD degrees and been working in their area for 20 years.

“But if we look at pressurised water reactors, which are the nuclear reactors which  propel these types of submarines, there is virtually nobody in Australia with any experience of those – because we’ve never had them before.

“So I think in the short term those people will have to come from USA and UK and after that it will just take time to upskill our own people to that level.

“They have announced that Australian military and civilian personnel will embed with the US Navy and the Royal Navy with immediate effect to accelerate the training required and eventually those people will likely be promoted to the key decision-making positions.”

Tier 2: Nuclearized workforce

In the middle tier are senior professionals who have undertaken advanced training and have between seven and 10 years’ experience.

This group includes senior scientists, electrical and mechanical engineers, technical managers, reactor operators and even health physicists.

The majority of a submarine crew would be in this tier and in the US Navy all the crew have qualifications and several years of training in nuclear engineering.

Dr Obbard estimates that, with 13 possible boats, around 4300 people with the necessary skills and training will be required at this level to support the AUKUS program.

“I think Australia is actually quite well-placed to train up this middle tier because we produce a lot of graduates in a wide range of engineering disciplines,” he said.

“After that, it’s just a case of doing a specific nuclear engineering course like a Masters, or a Minor, which is then the pathway to being part of the nuclearized workforce.”

One potential barrier to training this middle tier, according to Dr Obbard, is the fact they will likely need to gain experience working on real nuclear systems.

OPAL Pool nuclear reactor

The Open Pool Australian Lightwater (OPAL) reactor at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) facility in Lucas Heights, Sydney, is the only nuclear reactor in the whole of Australia. Photo from ANSTO

Given the fact there is only one nuclear plant in operation in the whole of Australia – the Lucas Heights facility in Sydney which is used to produce nuclear medicine and deliver neutrons for a suite of scientific instruments used in research – opportunities for hands-on experience are limited.

“I think Australia will need to send a significant amount of those middle tier experts overseas because we have so few nuclear facilities here for them to get the training they need on the relevant systems,” he said.

“In the US they have old boats where the nuclear reactors still work, which allows engineers to test and train and learn about safety systems to get the experience they need before they go to sea.”

Tier 3: Nuclear aware

Dr Obbard says between 4000 and 5000 workers will need to be trained up to be ‘nuclear aware’ to help maintain the new AUKUS submarines.

This workforce is predominantly tradespeople and skilled professionals, such as fitters, machinists, and welders, who will need to have some awareness the issues related to nuclear power in order to safely carry out their tasks. It is hoped Australia will be more easily able to provide the required level of training for this tier, given it is expected to be much less intensive.

“The bulk of the workforce in a shipyard would likely be at this Nuclear Aware level, and the training might only take a couple of months,” Dr Obbard said.

“It’s a much quicker process, although there are also a lot more people to train up. But I think it’s probably the sort of thing that could be done at a TAFE institute to ensure there is the requisite nuclear safety training being provided.”

Dealing with nuclear waste

As part of the AUKUS agreement, Australia will manage all radioactive waste generated by its own Virginia Class and SSN-AUKUS submarines.

That requires a completely different workforce to be trained in order to safely manage the waste stream and, according to Dr Obbard, shows that the utilisation of nuclear material has a much broader impact on society.

“The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have a document called the 10 Fundamental Safety Principles regarding nuclear and that includes the role of government, the prevention of accidents, the limitation of risks to individuals, and the protection of present and future generations,” he said.

“Meeting all of those principles requires a significant workforce. It’s not just about engineers and mechanics, there is also a vast amount of regulatory and government systems that have to be in place as well.

“We should not view it as purely an engineering issue.”

Hurdles to overcome

Dr Obbard acknowledges there are a number of more general problems that Australia needs to address in order to deliver a successful AUKUS nuclear submarine program.

The first is that around 50 per cent of current researchers at universities around the country are foreign nationals, while the AUKUS recruitment pipeline requires Australian citizens.

Dr Edward Obbard

Dr Edward Obbard, who heads the nuclear engineering program at UNSW Sydney. Photograph from UNSW

“We need to ensure we are attracting top local students who want to pursue engineering and research careers,” Dr Obbard said. “Given the citizenship issue, it’s even harder than you might realise with regards to AUKUS just from looking at the total numbers of how many students are graduating in Australia.”

Dr Obbard also believes Australia’s ban on nuclear power stations makes AUKUS’s workforce challenges more difficult. "It’s a complicated decision,” he said. “Especially for young people considering their long-term career.

“People who are pro-nuclear in terms of energy are  excited about these submarines because they think we will now have nuclear power stations.

“But I very much think the opposite. It is going to be so hard to train all these people with nuclear skills for the submarine program, so how could you do the same for another workforce required for power stations at the same time?

“Our graduates are motivated by cutting-edge technology and civilian nuclear applications, but AUKUS has pushed civilian nuclear energy further away. If ministers could provide some affirmative statements about why young Australians should study nuclear engineeering, and how the discipline helps society overall, I think that could really help.”