NEA calls on governments to plug nuclear skills gap

14 November 2007

Member states of the OECD's Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) have unanimously adopted a statement on the need for qualified human resources in the nuclear field, reflecting their concerns about difficulties in recruiting qualified specialists.

The NEA Steering Committee for Nuclear Energy warned, "If no action is taken on this issue, the nuclear sector risks facing a shortage of qualified manpower to ensure the appropriate regulation and operation of existing nuclear facilities as well as the construction of new ones in those countries wishing to do so."

In its statement, the NEA said that the nuclear industry faces three particular problems: retaining existing skills and competences, particularly in countries which have not yet decided to replace existing, ageing facilities; developing and retaining skills and competencies in areas such as decommissioning and radioactive waste management; and, supporting a revival of nuclear power in countries wishing to do so with an ageing workforce and declining programs.

It said that these problems are affected by the increasing liberalization of electricity markets, which has resulted in utilities downsizing their workforces and research facilities in order to cut costs. In addition, there has been a decrease in government funding for nuclear research.

According to the NEA, "The actions taken by governments have varied, with improvements in some areas and little change in others. In some countries, specific plans to support universities have been successful in reversing the declining trends of the number of graduates in nuclear engineering and related disciplines."

It added, "Most countries have recognised the need to secure qualified human resources in the nuclear energy field, inter alia, due to the long lead time in existing programs and consideration of new energy production options. Although some progress has been achieved, more needs to be done."

The NEA makes three recommendations to its member governments. Firstly, it suggests that regular assessments are carried out of both the requirements and availability of qualified human resources to match identified needs. Secondly, governments, academia, industry and research organizations should collaborate both nationally and internationally. Thirdly, governments, whether or not they chose to use nuclear energy, should encourage large, high-profile, international research and development programs.

Skills in the UK

One particular OECD country which is looking at redeveloping its nuclear power sector in coming years is the UK, where indigenous gas-cooled reactors are ageing and could be replaced by light-water-cooled ones. In that country, the workforce faces an age and skills gap.

One aspect of the government's response has been to establish a National Skills Academy to develop a standardized and coordinated approach to education, training and skills development in the nuclear sector. The Skills Academy will be a wholly-owned subsidiary of Cogent, the Sector Skills Council for the chemicals, pharmaceuticals, nuclear, oil and gas, petroleum and polymer industries. It will assist nuclear employers in tackling the current and future skills barriers and challenges facing the UK nuclear industry.

Jean Llewellyn, project director of the National Skills Academy for Nuclear, recently told The Times newspaper that no British university currently offers a dedicated nuclear engineering honours degree course. However, Imperial College is set to launch a course next year. Until then, the UK nuclear industry is recruiting from other engineering disciplines and training people up. Llewellyn said, "If we don't address this issue now we will have no alternative but to recruit skilled staff from overseas."

EDF Energy, a UK subsidiary of Electricite de France (EdF), has proposed participating in the construction of new nuclear power plants in the UK, should the government decide to do so. However, the company's human resources director, Tim Boylin, has said it would have to look to its French parent company to supply the specialist nuclear workers needed. Boylin told Personnel Today, "Given the current level of UK nuclear activity, the skillset is likely to be depleted so it makes lots of sense to look to places with more active engineering expertise."

EdF itself has announced plans to recruit almost 10,000 new workers in France during the next five years as the company expands in nuclear generation and renewable energy. Between 2007 and 2009, the company also plans to replace less than half of its 12,750 retiring workers. In 2006, EdF employed 156,524 people, compared with 161,310 in 2004.

Further information

OECD Nuclear Energy Agency

WNN: Nuclear skills gaps addressed worldwide
WNN: National Skills Academy approved for UK nuclear industry
WNN: Energy experts needed as skills gap looms