Three Mile Island has aggravated "a crisis" in the nation's submarine force as private utilities hire away Navy nuclear specialists to meet stiffened safety requirements imposed after last year's reactor accident, Navy leaders say.
"Just as the Air Force is the main source of trained pilots for the commercial airlines," the Navy Undersecretary Robert J. Murray in an interview, "so is the Navy the source of trained nuclear specialists for the civilian nuclear power industry."
Officers in the civilian nuclear power industry confirmed that utilities have stepped up recruiting of Navy specialists since the Three Mile Island accident of March 1979, and are also raiding each other to obtain the skilled people needed to fulfill the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's stepped up safety requirements.
"There's an awful scramble for qualified people," said one industry official.
The Navy always has strained to keep its nuclear powered submarine force at full strength, partly because a mistake in the depths can be catastrophic for the whole crew and, in the case of a missile submarine, perhaps the whole world. But Murray said the Navy is finding it harder today than ever before to man its submarine force, partly because of industry raiding of skilled people.
"A crisis is upon us in this community," said Murray in pleading with a Senate subcommittee last week for emergency pay raises for submarines.
"We give priority to manning our submarines, priority over all other ships, yet we are failing to meet our quotas" for either enlisted men or officers, Murray said.
This shortage means submarine officers cannot be spared for shore duty but must stay at sea for years on end, Murray said. This distresses the officers' families and makes it difficult to resist quitting the Navy and accepting lucrative job offers from the civilian nuclear power industry.
Submariners with rank of lieutenant through commander "are now so scarce that career officers will spend 15 of their 18 years in the Navy at sea, including 12 consecutive years on sea duty," Murray said "This is far too long."
The shortage of petty officers and chiefs to man nuclear-powered attack and missile submarines also is so severe that the men cannot get their turn at shore duty but must stay at sea year after year.
Although it has become especially difficult to attract people into the nuclear submarine service, and hold them, the surface fleet is also having a problem in hanging onto its skilled people.
Sizing up the grim picture for the Senate manpower subcommittee last week, Adm. James V. Watkins, vice chief of naval operations and former personnel chief, said "I consider it to be the most serious personnel readiness situation that I have seen in over 31 years in the Navy."
He blamed the Carter and previous administrations, but not Congress, for failing to heed Navy warnings that today's personnel crisis would develop if pay and other benefits were not improved.
Complained Watkins: "We have had three quadrennial study commissions, two presidential blue ribbon studies and two office of the secretary of defense studies" on pesonnel problems. "The net result has been zero" because the administration would not send the Navy's recommended reforms to Congress. t
"My experience has been that until the services are already in serious trouble and can demonstrate that, our projected troubles are never acceptable," Watkins said.
This time around the Carter administration is backing the Navy's proposal to give career submariners incentive pay amounting to between 13 and 30 percent of their base pay, depending on rank and years of service. This would cost an extra $30 million a year.
On top of that, submarine petty officers and chiefs with the rank of E-4 and above would get 22 to 25 percent of their monthly salary when they were at sea. This sea pay bonus would go to those ranks on other Navy ships as well. This extra pay is expected to cost $140 million a year.
The Navy is asking Congress to approve its request for submarine and sea pay this year, so it can be added to the fiscal 1981 budget rather than waiting until next year.
The Carter administration is not pushing for immediate congressional action, but is willing to wait for the lame duck session of Congress to convene after the November election.