Mark Leftly: The reactors are coming but the nuclear inspectors are going

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The Independent Online

Westminster Outlook We are at the start of the most ambitious civil nuclear programme in this country's history. A generation of state-of-the-art reactors worth at least £60bn will be built across the country, from Hinkley Point in the South-west to Hartlepool in the North-east. Tens of billions more are being spent clearing up radioactive waste at historic, highly hazardous nuclear sites, including Sellafield in Cumbria and Dounreay in the Scottish Highlands. A shame, then, that we're struggling to find enough nuclear inspectors to make sure all this radioactive material is stored safely.

Les Philpott, the deputy chief executive at the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR), has told me that although the organisation has undertaken a "massive" recruitment programme, it is "running just to stand still".

Three years ago, 60 per cent of the regulator's 220 technical staff were over 57. Today, that proportion is down, but at 40 per cent it still means the imminent retirement of some of the country's few nuclear inspectors at a time when they are needed more than ever.

A union source points out that the problems posed by an ageing workforce are "pretty bad but, worse still, entirely predictable" given that it is nearly 20 years since the last nuclear power station, Sizewell B, was opened.

The ONR is gambling that a change to its legal structure on 1 April will help bridge this worrying and looming skills gap. As what is known as an "independent body corporate", the ONR is no longer compelled to pay within strict civil service salary bands, so it can hike salaries to compete better with the private sector in attracting the best technical talent.

For now, the starting pay for a relatively junior inspector remains at £65,000, but that will increase over the next few years –plus there is the lure of a generous final salary pension scheme. With an eye to the future, a lot of the recruits will also be closer to graduation than retirement age, though they will need to be trained.

This situation isn't the ONR's fault. But it is a reminder of how easy it is for ambitious governments to forget about the simple things – like having enough experts around to make sure the country doesn't suffer a nuclear disaster.