The next POWER generation

1 February 2017

As plans for new nuclear reactors with a design life of 60 years become a reality, how is the industry faring in planning its workforce development for the decades ahead and what are the challenges it faces? Penny Hitchin reports.

An investment in knowledge pays the best interest,” said Benjamin Franklin.

Developing and maintaining a skilled workforce is essential for the nuclear industry globally. New build, operations and decommissioning all rely on specialists with the skills and experience to safely manage the sophisticated application of advanced technology. Nuclear energy and defence operations require a range of disciplines, skill levels and accumulated experience.

Life extension for US skills

The US nuclear energy infrastructure employs around 100,000 people. However with federal government responsible for 17 national labs, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission )NRC), the Department of Energy (DOE), as well as security and
the military the figure for total nuclear personnel employed increases two fold.

A decade ago the US nuclear energy industry demographic showed an ageing workforce. While reactors approaching 40 years of service could be granted life extensions, the same was not true for a large cohort of workers who were approaching retirement. Faced with this situation the industry urgently rallied to work collectively to ensure appropriate pathways for training the people needed to staff a nuclear power plant. The US now has a robust nuclear workforce pipeline system which is providing enough new workers needed to operate the 99 US nuclear power plants for the coming decades.

Elizabeth McAndrew-Benavides, Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) senior manager for strategic workforce planning explained to this publication what lies behind the turn around.

“When we realized there was going to be an ageing workforce issue in 2001, we started conducting workforce surveys. These surveys capture the size, shape and intricacies of the ageing workforce issue. With the data, we got together to define the problems.”

It became apparent that a large number of nuclear professionals were approaching retirement and that a younger workforce must be brought in to replace them in a timely manner. NEI facilitated the establishment of an industry Workforce Working Group to evaluate data and produce strategy. The supply chain, utilities, government and academia were all actively involved with this.

The outcome is an education and training structure with four main pipelines supplying staff to the industry. One is from university nuclear education programmes. When the Workforce Working Group started on their task, they felt that there was not enough support from government for nuclear research which had a knock on effect on the departments and their ability to attract the most able students. Lobbying led the federal government to agree to raise nuclear research funding allocations. This has led to an increase in departmental activity and contributed to a better uptake of nuclear engineering students.

Technician and support level staff are generally recruited from ex- military personnel, from apprenticeships and from two year associate degree community college courses. The working group decided to focus on the community college provision. It concentrated on 27 schools, designing programmes which would lead into specific well-paid jobs in the industry with the potential for career pathways into management.

Matching the number of technician training places in community colleges to the number of jobs available is important for the credibility of the courses. When the technicians finish their training they are able to move into well paid jobs in the industry and this provides an invaluable boost to recruitment onto the courses.

In taking the decision to limit the number of places, the group learned from the experience of ethanol technician training programmes. These had been popular when they started running in community colleges in 2007. However when the ethanol peak petered out dispirited graduates were left with no jobs to go to.

Equilibrium accomplished

The US now has a wide range of nuclear training programmes running. This includes over 30 university nuclear engineering programmes, 27 nuclear technology community colleges training technicians and six labour-running nuclear mechanic apprenticeship programmes. McAndrew-Benavides says that these pipelines can provide all the new workers needed to operate the 99 US nuclear power plants.

She says: “The industry did so much hiring in the past decade to the extent that as of 2015 the nuclear energy industry is getting younger. We have hired enough young operators and engineers to continue operating our facilities safely without a worry of a workforce shortage.”

There are a few areas of concern where there is a shortfall of US specialists, although the total numbers are small. This includes health physicists, energy facility seismic experts and nuclear qualified welders. Advanced and small modular reactor design personnel programmes are another area that has drawn some focus.

“We are also looking into ensuring we have nuclear knowledgeable mechanical, electrical and civil engineers to support advanced and SMR reactor design companies. There are plenty of engineering graduates, but we would like a few more to be nuclear knowledgeable, and for these engineers to have a focus on innovation and a drive to work for a start-up company. Start-up companies have unique needs as compared to utilities, suppliers and national laboratories,” says McAndrew-Benavides.

US experience shows that collaborative working by all the relevant parties can succeed in changing the workforce demographic. In the US the nuclear workforce has been changed in a remarkably short time and it now has a more sustainable profile for the future.

UK faces rapid increase in demand for skills

The demographic average age in the UK nuclear industry is around 54 and many of the most experienced and valuable workers will reach retirement age in the coming decade, at a time when the industry is likely to face a burgeoning demand for staff.

The UK nuclear industry is looking forward to a new build programme which could see simultaneous work on construction of reactors of three different types (Westinghouse AP1000, Areva EPR and Hitachi ABWR) within in the next decade. In addition to this, investment-intensive life extension programmes are keeping existing reactors in operation while the UK’s history as a nuclear pioneer means it has complex and unique decommissioning challenges. Furthermore, forthcoming major submarine projects mean the civil nuclear industry is likely to face competition for skilled personnel from the defence industry.

The Nuclear Workforce Assessment projections published by the Nuclear Energy Skills Alliance in 2015 forecast nuclear workforce demand will rise from 78,000 full time employees in 2015 to 111,000 by 2021 to meet its existing and future commitments.

If the existing new build schedule is maintained then overall workforce demand (including construction) will peak in 2021, although not all of the 111,000 people involved will be in permanent jobs. The construction workforce, estimated to be less than five percent of the total in 2015, will rise to nearly one third in 2021. Many of the construction roles require engineering and building skills rather than nuclear-specific qualifications. However for new build to proceed in a timely fashion, developers need to ensure that skills are available.

In addition, the new build programme will see the UK move from first and second generation gas-cooled reactors to light water reactors (LWRs) which will place greater demand for new knowledge and understanding across the sector.

Occupations with potential demand/supply pinch points are mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, construction and decommissioning trades, control and instrumentation, project and programme management, steel fixers, concretors, civil engineering operatives and scaffolders.

Other resource vulnerabilities identified include safety case specialists, commissioning engineers, heavy electrical engineer and chartered status administrators in purchasing and supply.

In December 2016 the Nuclear Skills Strategy Group comprising employers, government and trade unions representing both the civil and defence sectors, launched a new strategic plan whereby industry and government will collaborate to ensure that the skills needed for nuclear new build will be available.

The plan is the result of a comprehensive analysis of the preparedness, capacity and capability of all organisations involved in delivering specialist and generic nuclear skills. It sets out 19 strategic actions, ranging from group training arrangements for apprentices and new bursary schemes through to a clear national curriculum and regional skills initiatives.

Dr Fiona Rayment, director for Fuel Cycle Solutions NNL and chair of the NSSG introduced the new initiative saying: “By working in collaboration with government, skills bodies, supporting organisations and employers, the NSSG is confident that the actions as set out will address the underlying issues and allow the sector to gear up for the future, supported by the necessary infrastructure, processes and systems to meet its skills challenge.”

Hinkley Point C (HPC) in Somerset is the most advanced of the UK new build projects. It is one of the largest and most technologically complex construction projects ever built in the UK and will require a skilled and competent construction workforce. The developer, EDF Energy, has carried out detailed projections of the skills stream that will be required to build the plant. It estimates that the construction project will need around 25,000 people with a wide range of trades and skills.

Work is currently underway to prepare the site: notably, shifting around four million cubic metres of earth and constructing infrastructure such as a temporary jetty in the Bristol Channel. The workforce onsite will rise to around 1700 but no skills shortages are anticipated in this area.

When operational the power station will provide 900 long-term, jobs throughout its planned 60 years of operation. Part of the socio- economic plan for the HPC project is to develop skills within the local workforce. EDF Energy has invested over £11 million into the local area to improve training and skills provision. Half of this money has gone to local colleges to develop many of the skills required for the construction and operation of Hinkley Point C.

Investment of £1.5 million has gone towards developing the Construction Skills and Innovation Centre (CSIC) at Bridgwater College, five miles from the site. CISC has been ramping up capacity for several years in readiness for HPC construction. The college has also invested in a new £8 million Energy Skills Centre to provide training for the engineering, nuclear and sustainable energy sectors.

National bodies for construction and engineering training have identified national level skills gaps with the potential to affect major infrastructure projects. One of these is likely to be for steel fixers, a role which EDF Energy has identified will be required in large numbers during the main civils phase of the HPC construction project. Steel fixing is a skilled job which involves positioning and securing the key structural elements used in reinforced concrete on major projects. It requires a detailed understanding of digital engineering drawings and modular manufacturing techniques.

In conjunction with the supply chain the CISC has developed and is running a new course for apprentice steel fixers to help ready the supply chain for the construction phase of HPC.

Another global shortage area is skilled welders. The American Welding Society says it will face a shortage of 400,000 operators by 2024 due to an ageing workforce and lack of new workers with complete skill sets. In 2013 the British Government allocated £4 million to welding training under a pilot programme.

Emerging nuclear countries: developing a new workforce

Dozens of countries have expressed interest in developing nuclear power programmes. One of the challenges they face is fast-track development of a new and skilled workforce with the complete suite of nuclear skills.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) will be the next country to start generating nuclear energy. The oil-rich Emirates has a $20 billion contract with a South Korean consortium led by KEPCO to build four APR1400 nuclear power reactors at Barakah on the Persian Gulf. Construction is well underway and the first power is due to come online in 2017. If the schedule is met, by 2020 a total of 5.6GW of nuclear power (a quarter of the country’s electricity supply) will be delivered to the grid. Around 2000 operational staff will be required. The agreement between the UAE and KEPCO provides for fuel supply, maintenance, and training and education for Emirati nuclear professionals.

Initially many of the staff will be provided by KEPCO, but the UAE wants to develop skills in the indigenous workforce. In 2008 the UAE created Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (ENEC) and the Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation (FANR). The new organisations were largely staffed by experienced expatriates. However, by 2020 ENEC is targeting 60% Emiratisation (employment of Emirati nationals in the industry).

Despite government policies to promote employment of its nationals in businesses across the UAE, generally most continue to draw heavily on expatriate staff. However the nuclear industry is government-owned and subject to the availability of skills, it may be a stronger position to leverage employment of nationals. If its ambitious targets are to be met, clearly a huge programme of education and training is required.

This is underway: since 2009 ENEC has been providing UAE nationals with generous scholarships to pursue degrees in nuclear, mechanical, or electrical engineering in universities in Korea, France, the UK and the US. At home UAE colleges and universities run a range of technician courses for the industry and students all receive financial sponsorship from ENEC.

While the Emiratisation target may be a way off, ENEC is proud of its figure for employment of women. At 20%, the Emirates employs the highest proportion of any nuclear industry in the world.

Challenges lie ahead

It seems clear ensuring a healthy supply and a broad demographic for the nuclear industry workforce means collaboration between the industry, educational establishments and government. Ensuring a suitable stream of new entrants means understanding the current and future supply and demand in the labour market and planning well ahead.

One underlying problem facing many Western countries is the poor uptake of STEM (Science Technology and Engineering) subjects among school students. This shortage is an issue faced by many industries and means there can be a lot of competition to attract qualified students. Developing more interest in science and technology is key. Industry, education, government and the media can all influence this.

In contrast to many industries, the necessity for security clearance means recruiting from abroad can be problematic. In
the UK foreign nationals are not eligible for the majority of jobs in the nuclear sector unless they have cleared stringent security checks and have been a UK resident for at least five years. Similar restrictions apply in the US. An interesting aside is that with UK new build lining up investment in new nuclear from France, China and Japan, it will be interesting to see whether changes in security clearance requirements will be forthcoming.

For the nuclear renaissance to take off political and investment decisions must align. Then it will take continued collaboration from government, industry and academic institutions across the global sector to ensure the availability of the required skills in the years ahead.  

Training UK nuclear workforce.
Training UK nuclear manufacturing workforce.
Training Hinkley Point C indicative construction timeline / jobs during construction.
Training US Nuclear Uniform Curriculum Program.
Training Forecast annual inflow 2015-2021.

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