Attrition: Keeping The Nukes On Board


May 22, 2009: No one in the navy was surprised when it was recently announced that fifteen of the 350 sailors, who that maintain the nuclear power plant on the carrier USS George Washington, had re-enlisted, and received bonuses of about $90,000 each (for agreeing to stay in uniform another 4-5 years). Carrier and submarine crews tend to agree that the nuclear power plant personnel are the hardest working sailors on board. A large part of the workload is paperwork. Twice in the last three years, the U.S. Navy has had to discipline sailors who maintain nuclear power plants for messing with their paperwork or training efforts. Back in 2007, several members of the nuclear power department on a nuclear submarine were disciplined for not maintaining logs properly. These sailors were worked hard, as is often the case on a nuclear sub, and they sometimes cut corners. A similar situation arose recently in the nuclear power department of the carrier Eisenhower. There, seventeen senior NCOs and a junior officer were punished for cheating on a requalification examination. Some of these exams are administered monthly, to insure that all those who work on the nuclear power plant are maintaining their skills.

For the last few years, the U.S. Navy now has had to pay more to keep experienced people with certain skills. Some types of submarine and nuclear power technicians can now get a bonus of up to $125,000 if they reenlist for three years. This came about because, next to the SEAL commandos, the submarine service, and nuclear power specialists, are the most selective, and candidates require nearly as much training. These specialists have an easy time getting good civilian jobs if they get out.

But the biggest attraction to leaving the navy is no more going to sea for up to six months at a time. This is tough on family life, and most sailors are married. The war on terror has meant more work for U.S. nuclear subs, which are very popular for staking out coastal areas where terrorists are operating. The problem also applies to those that staff the nuclear power plant on aircraft carriers. The navy will not lower standards for nuclear power specialists.

Those high standards are the main reason there has never been an accident with nuclear power plants used on hundreds of U.S. submarines and surface ships since the 1950s. This admirable safety record has not been easy to achieve, as the two cheating incidents, and the retention problems attest. Moreover, the navy sees the situation getting worse in the future. Rising oil prices have the United States building nuclear power plants again, and those with nuclear power plant experience will receive tempting offers to jump ship and settle down near one of the new power stations. The navy "nukes" will be particularly sought after because of the discipline and high training levels the navy maintains for those who run nuclear power plants. While some nukes will leave the navy, others will remain because of even larger bonuses.




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