Atomic renaissance threatened by critical skills shortage

12 Feb 2008 | News
Nuclear power is back in favour – but does Europe have the skills and resources to bring the industry into the 21st century?

Almost twenty-two years after the Chernobyl disaster, Europe’s need for energy security and its low carbon footprint is bringing nuclear power back into favour. At the same time, Russia is emerging as the world’s atomic energy superpower.

Last month, the UK gave the go-ahead to a new generation of nuclear power stations, setting no limits on nuclear expansion and adding further momentum to the industry’s worldwide renaissance.  But news that construction of Finland’s new nuclear plant has fallen behind by two years is fuelling heated debate on the environmental credentials and economics of nuclear power and – crucially - whether the skills exist to bring the industry into the twenty-first century.

Olkiluto-3 is the first nuclear plant ordered in Western Europe since the April 1986 Chernobyl disaster. It was scheduled to come on line in 2009, but this has now been postponed until 2011, increasing the construction budget from $3 billion to $4.4 billion.

Supporters of nuclear energy argue that higher construction costs will be balanced by the lower fuel costs. But with only marginal differences between the cost of electricity generation from nuclear or coal-fired plants, delivering plants on time and to budget is crucial.

The Finnish plant, being built by France’s Areva and the German company Siemens, is seen as a test case for Europe’s nuclear future. The whole project is being closely watched by older EU member states, many of which, like the UK, plan to pile investment into the nuclear industry in the next few years.

A generation retired

But outside France the industry in Europe has been dormant for at least 20 years. Even in those countries that formerly had the expertise most experts are now retired and there are widespread skills shortages.

“The nuclear industry went through a very unpopular period in the 80s and early 90s,” says Paul Howarth, Director of Research at the Dalton Nuclear Institute at Manchester University in the UK. “Even in the UK, where we still have a nuclear industry, we just about have enough expertise to evaluate new reactor designs. There is a serious need to refresh our skills base.”

Following on from the decision to build new atomic power stations, last month the UK government announced the formation of The National Skills Academy for Nuclear, to assist employers in the sector with training the 5,900 to 9,000 graduates and 2,700 to 4,500 skilled trades that will be needed over the next ten years. The UK’s new plants are to be located on the sites of existing generators, which must be decommissioned first, making decommissioning skills the first priority.  

In the meantime, the UK and other countries in Europe will have to look abroad to get the skills they need to bring the industry forward. “Student secondments and exchanges are already on the increase through the European Framework Programme,” says Howarth.  But there is international competition for skills. “Countries outside Europe, such as Korea, Canada and Japan, are looking at ways to increase student mobility by providing opportunities for more overseas work and secondments.”

Given the pivotal role of the Chernobyl disaster in nuclear’s long fall from grace, it is curious that no company, or country, has managed to gain as much momentum in recent years as Russia.

Russia’s nuclear drive

Atomstroyexport, a former branch of the Soviet Atomic Energy Ministry is building seven nuclear reactors in Iran, China, Bulgaria and India, more it claims, than any competitor. Three of the construction projects involve the Generation III water-moderated, water-cooled 1000 MW light water reactor. The competition for building new reactors around the world is focused on such third-generation technologies.

In recent years Atomstroyexport took over the building of a reactor for Iran at the Bushehr power plant from Siemens. It sold two reactors to China, to be built at Tianwan, and two units are under construction in India at Kudankulam.

“Russia has a major domestic capability in nuclear science, engineering and reactor design, much of it originally generated from Cold War times and spin-offs from bomb technology,” says Gordon MacKerron, director of the Sussex Energy Group at Sussex University.

And despite charges that Russia is holding Europe to ransom over control of more traditional hydrocarbon energy supplies, the country is increasingly willing to bring its expertise to mainstream nuclear energy development. Last year saw a spate of international agreements.

Russia had been participating for some years in the OECD’s Nuclear Energy Agency’s (NEA) work on reactor safety and nuclear regulation and is hosting an NEA project on reactor vessel melt-through.

Collaboration deal

In March of last year, the Russians signed a collaboration deal with NEA. “This agreement is expected to assist Russia’s integration into the OECD,” says Anton Krawchenko, an analyst at Fitch Ratings, the risk assessment agency. Then in April 2007, Red Star, a government owned design bureau and US company Thorium Power agreed to collaborate on testing Thorium Power’s seed and blanket fuel assemblies. Also in April, French company Alstom and Atomenergomash set up a joint partnership to manufacture the turbine and generator portions of nuclear power plants.

Building on Russia’s strong position in the industry in December 2007, Russian President Vladimir Putin ratified a law consolidating all of the country’s nuclear assets to form a state-run nuclear superstructure called Rosatom, thought to be the largest nuclear company in the world.  

According to Krawchenko, “Rosatom is keen to become involved in international projects for Generation IV reactor development and is keen to have international participation in fast neutron reactor development, as well as joint proposals for MOX fuel fabrication.” Russia is the main operator of BREST, one of the six technologies that the Generation IV Forum believes represent the future shape of nuclear energy. The forum is an international initiative designed to engender international cooperation on the development of fourth-generation reactor systems for 2030 and beyond.

“The reality today is that cross-border cooperation will increase out of necessity,” says Howarth. “There are very few countries that can stand alone any more and it takes major investment and skill to develop nuclear technology.”

Never miss an update from Science|Business:   Newsletter sign-up