Global push for nuclear skills

29 October 2008

Nuclear recruitment drives around the world are drawing thousands of new workers into the sector. The initiative is being led by companies building or about to build new reactors, but extends to government organisations too.


The leading organisations in nuclear recruitment are those with a big current workload of nuclear build or those that expect one soon. The two main players in France's nuclear industry, Electricité de France and Areva, both involved in building new nuclear plants at the moment, are sourcing a combined total of 15,500 new workers this year.


EdF took part in what it called the first major European apprenticeship meeting with the aim of finding young workers to replace the generation approaching retirement. "Of the 15,000 employees recruited over the next five years, one in three will have gone through the apprentice scheme," said a company statement as it announced it would hire 3500 apprentices in 2008.


For its part, Areva has hired a total of 12,000 new staff after organising events in Germany, China, Italy, the USA and the United Arab Emirates as well as at home in France. The company said it would need to find 1000 workers in China where it is building two of its EPR reactor units.


Canada's domestic nuclear power industry is attempting to gain strength ahead of predicted build at home and with the hope of further exports. A meeting at Ontario Institute of Technology, which is the only Canadian university offering a nuclear engineering degree, heard calls for more young people to keep up with demand. Neil Alexander, president of the Association of Candu Industries - the 114 companies centred around Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd and its Candu reactor design - said: "We need to retain the intellectual property built up over the past 60 years."
While nuclear power generators and reactor builders need new staff, so do the safety regulators. In the USA some 32 new reactors are being planned, while a number of reactor designs are under examination and an application to build a permanent radioactive waste store has just been submitted.


This workload has caused the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to engage in "strenuous" efforts to increase staffing levels by 600 over three years. Pete Lyons, a commissioner in the organisation said last year: "No nuclear power or fuel cycle facility can operate without trained and dedicated people who have made safety a priority." He then looked ahead to the advanced nuclear facilities the USA is currently considering: used nuclear fuel reprocessing and recycling as well as fast-breeder reactors. While these technologies have been built in the USA before, this was many years ago and the aims of the programs would be even more ambitious. The problem is that the depth of technical knowledge to oversee the restart of such programs does not still exist in the regulator. This must be gained by hiring new staff, training existing staff before upgrading their positions, and exchanging knowledge with parallel organisations abroad.


Lastly, many nuclear countries, and notably the UK, have to increase the resources of their technical universities in order to provide a steady flow of good candidates to commercial and government nuclear bodies.


A recent move in Britain was the grant of £5 million from British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL) to the Dalton Institute in Manchester. The money will help to fund a series of appointments over five years in a variety of research areas as well as to cover the costs of support staff, fellowships, equipment, conferences and travel. It is envisaged that each chair will be sustainable through self-generated research income.


In Russia, President Dmitry Medvedev signed a decree this month towards creating a National Nuclear Research University and a National Technological University. These new establishments will be built from the existing Moscow Engineering Physics Institute and the Moscow Institute of Steel and Alloys. The country is planning to double its nuclear capacity by 2020 as well as take 20% of overseas contracts sourcing most of the components and skills from home.