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The Next Generation of European Nuclear Talent: Where Will It Come From?

At the Hanhikivi site where Fennovoima is building a new nuclear power station. (Photo: Fennovoima)

Life isnt easy for nuclear power in the EU. Member States pursue totally contradictory policies, existing nuclear generation gets little or no public support, and Frances flagship third-generation EPR design is struggling to become competitive. At the same time, the EU is expecting the industry to maintain its generation capacity until 2050, which will require substantial new construction. Under these circumstances, can the sector find the next generation of talent to ensure its continuity and create new growth perspectives? Karel Beckman spoke to a number of insiders to feel the pulse of the European nuclear sector in the post-Fukushima, post-Paris age.

The nuclear sector seems to be beset by bad news these days. Bankruptcies in the U.S., delays and cost overruns in Finland and France, controversy around the high price for the Hinkley Point C project in the U.K. – and all of it coming on top of Fukushima and phase-outs in Germany and other countries (Switzerland, Belgium).

In the EU, nuclear power still contributes 27% of power generation capacity (2015), but that share is expected to drop to less than 20% by 2025, according to a Communication from the European Commission released in April 2016:

All of this may give people the impression that the European nuclear power sector is an industry in decline. That impression, however, would be wrong.

In fact, taking a look behind its bleak public image reveals a sector that’s more vibrant, much bigger, and much more optimistic than most people realise.

The European nuclear industry employs between 400,000 and 500,000 people directly and another 400,000 indirectly. In the UK alone some 100,000 people are employed directly or indirectly in the nuclear sector. And despite the fact that nuclear’s share in the capacity mix may go down, in absolute terms capacity is expected to go up, as the above chart shows.

Indeed, in a number of EU countries (Finland, Hungary, UK, France) new plants are being built, in other countries (Poland, Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, UK) new projects are being planned or considered.

“This is a complex field. We need the smartest people”

In addition, new technologies, such as small modular reactors (SMRs), are being researched and developed, and a number of large European-wide R&D programmes are being carried out, such as Myrrha in Belgium, the first-ever prototype particle accelerator-driven reactor, Allegro in Central Europe, a gas-cooled fast breeder reactor prototype, and SPRINT, a Programme for Research and Innovation in Nuclear Technology.

Although the EU, as a result of strong differences of opinion among the member states, does not actively promote nuclear power, the European Commission does publish a Communication for a Nuclear Illustrative Programme (known as PINC) on a regular basis. In the latest PINC, the Commission indicates that it expects a substantial nuclear new-build programme worth €350-500 billion to maintain 95-105 GW of nuclear in Europe in the long-term.

The Commission also estimates that €50 billion will need to be invested in lifetime extensions and another €250 billion spent on decommissioning and waste disposal out to 2050, for nuclear to play its part in the energy mix.

Smartest people

What Energy Post wanted to know is whether the nuclear sector, given the pressures that it’s under and its less-than-ideal public image, will be able to play the role it is expected to in Europe’s low-carbon transition. In particular, will it be able, in addition to attracting sufficient finance, to attract sufficient new talent?

“That’s a very topical question indeed”, reacts Yves Desbazeille, Director General of Foratom, the European nuclear industry association, when we ask him this.

Desbazeille, himself new at Foratom, although he worked for EDF for more than 20 years in various parts of the value chain, notes that there are countries, like Germany, in which policymakers have turned against nuclear power. In addition, many NGO’s and civil society organisation are negative about nuclear energy. “This has an impact on the will of young people to pursue a nuclear career.”

This is all the more serious, he adds, as the nuclear industry needs a new generation of employees. “The people who were involved in building the first generation of nuclear plants, for example in France in the 1980s, are on the point of retiring.”

“People who say that we can manage with 100% solar and wind don’t know what they are saying”

And the nuclear sector can’t use just anybody, observes Desbazeille. “This is a complex field. We need the smartest people.”

According to Desbazeille, it is misleading for policymakers, NGOs and others to suggest that the nuclear industry has no future. “We can’t do without nuclear power in a fully decarbonized world. People who say that we can manage with 100% solar and wind don’t know what they are saying.”

Even in a country like Germany, which is phasing out nuclear, “we still need two or three highly skilled generations of employees”, he says. “We can’t afford that the decommissioning and waste disposal will not be carried out properly.”

Career for life

As Chairman of the European Nuclear Society’s Young Generation Network (ENS YGN), Nathan Patterson has a task to help make nuclear power attractive to young people – and to nurture the new talent that enters the sector. He has no doubts at all about the wisdom of going to work in the nuclear sector. “If you want a career for life”, he says, “nuclear is very well placed.”

The nuclear sector’s “young generation” is hardly a dying breed, explains Patterson, who in his daily life is customer care manager at Rolls Royce, which supplies instrumentation and control systems to the industry. “Our umbrella organisation covers 24 member organisations in Europe with tens of thousands of members. We meet three times a year, organise technical tours, share knowledge and have an annual flagship event that last year attracted 550 people from all over Europe.”

Patterson is not afraid that the pipeline of new talent will become empty any time soon. “A lot of young people are coming into the industry. They are bringing a lot of drive and innovative ideas with them. With ENS YGN we try to create a culture so that young people have their voices heard and can help determine the future of the sector.”

“There is a market out there. In China tens of reactors are being constructed. There are new reactors being built in the Middle East, Asia, Europe”

Patterson says the nuclear industry is changing rapidly, although this may not be apparent to outside observers. “There are a lot of new concepts out there. Advanced materials use, advanced reactor designs, advance simulation and computational analysis. This is all being researched and developed.”

It’s true that many of these ideas have been around for a long time, Patterson acknowledges. “But we didn’t use to have the tools to develop them. Now we have 3d printing, computational abilities, new health monitoring systems. A lot more is possible today.”

Overall, he says, the mood in the industry, certainly in the UK, is positive. “New projects will be built, and there is a lot of upgrading and plant life extension going on. This will present a lot of opportunities for young people to develop and grow.”

Standardization or innovation?

There are nuclear experts who say that the industry needs more standardisation rather than innovation, to bring costs down. According to Patterson, however, both are necessary. “In the short term we need more standardisation, that’s true. That requires harmonisation of regulatory systems. European nuclear regulators could help us to make progress in this. In the longer term, we need new developments too, such as small modular reactors.”

Desbazeille concurs. “Many people don’t realise that the existing plants we have today are very different from what they used to be thirty years ago when they were first built. Every ten years there are major retrofits. The modernization of nuclear power plants is conducted based on their ongoing operation worldwide. It also includes the outcome of accidents that occurred in the past for example in Fukushima.”

“I feel that I am building something that will last. There will always be political discussion over nuclear energy. But we need to replace fossil fuels. And to maintain our quality of life”

In addition, he says, “there is a lot of new thinking around Generation-IV projects, such as SMRs, which could be manufactured in modules rather than constructed on site. That would better fit with the flexible energy system of the future. In Finland they are looking at using nuclear power in district heating systems. That could be a good solution in terms of efficiency. There are so many innovations ahead of us.”

What about the need to bring down costs? Desbazeille says that “everything that is being done is also done with a view to reduce costs. The industry is fully aware that at a price of £92.50/MWh [the price guaranteed by the UK government for Hinkley Point C, editor] it might be difficult to compete with renewables. However, it’s worth noting that nuclear and RES do not render the same service to the system. Therefore, while comparing the overall cost of each energy source, also other parameters such as an impact on economy and land use, as well as security of supply should be taken into account. Nevertheless, for the EPR [the third-generation design developed by EDF which will be built at Hinkley Point C], which is regarded as expensive, it is envisaged that costs will be brought down by 30%.”

A small world

What do young people themselves say?

Minttu Hietamäki is 30 years old, but has worked in the nuclear industry for 10 years already. “I had a focus on nuclear power quite early”, says Hietamäki, who works as a nuclear engineering specialist for Fennovoima, the company that’s building a new nuclear power plant in Finland, supplied by Rosatom, the Russian state-owned company. “Once when I was still in college I went to Strasbourg and I had to defend nuclear power in a debating contest. I found it exciting. I was interested in the political aspect of energy. There is always discussion about it.”

For Hietamäki the choice for a nuclear career has turned out to be quite satisfying. “I first worked at the Loviisa and Olkiluoto power plants in Finland. Then I went to work in Sweden. Then I worked at the Pickering power station in Ontario, Canada. This has Candu reactors, pressurized heavy water reactors, which are very different from the light water reactors in Finland. It was the most exotic place I ever worked in.”

Hietamäki says she found it easy to “move from one work place to the other. It’s a small world. It’s easy to network.” She has no fear that she will not have new opportunities once the Hanhikivi plant that’s being built by Fennovoima is up and running. “There is a market out there. In China tens of reactors are being constructed. There are new reactors being built in the Middle East, Asia, Europe.”

What she likes most about the work is the opportunity it offers “to do things really well. The nuclear sector is not just about being quick and efficient. It’s about safe, about good quality.” Moreover, there is a sense of a shared goal. “All people who work in nuclear have a common goal. To keep the plant in good shape.”

“Most people are quite neutral. They are open to arguments”

Working in the preparatory phase of Hanhikivi has been a fascinating experience, says Hietamäki. The Fennovoima team includes 20 nationalities at the moment. They also have intense collaboration with the Russians. “I just came back from a meeting in St. Petersburg. For Rosatom this project is very important. It will give them an opportunity to demonstrate that they can build a nuclear power plant according to modern, European standards.”

Not that progress has always been smooth. There have been delays, caused mostly by the very strict standards and instructions from Finnish nuclear regulator STUK that Fennovoima must conform to.

Hietamäki says she talks a lot with her colleagues about Olkiluoto-3, the EPR-plant that’s being built by Areva in Finland, and that’s faced with so much difficulties, including even lawsuits. “Some of my colleagues have worked there”, says Hietamäki. “The main problem is that they were still doing a lot of design work during construction. That did not work. We are designing and licensing our power plant to a higher level of detail before construction.” (Editor’s Note: after this interview was completed, Hietamäki changed jobs and went to work for Fortum on the start-up phase of Olkiluoto-3.)

What is also important for Hietamäki is to feel that she is working on something that is part of the future. “I feel that I am building something that will last. There will always be political discussion over nuclear energy. But we need to replace fossil fuels. And to maintain our quality of life. Sweden has found out that they could not do it without nuclear, not in our cold climate.”

As to the problem of radioactive waste, Hietamäki says “this can be handled. Compare it to the waste generated by other forms of energy. That’s a lot worse than what nuclear generates.”

Emotional

Päivikki Aarni, whose job it is, as human resources manager at Fennovoima, to find the “next generation” of nuclear workers, is not pessimistic about the future. According to her, only “a minority” of people are “emotional” about nuclear power. “Most people are quite neutral. They are open to arguments. Certainly technical people find the nuclear industry interesting, at least in principle.”

She does acknowledge that it’s a challenge to find the right people in some fields, such as ICT. “They usually have the option to look for what might seem faster, sexier jobs. We try to make it clear to them that our project offers really unique possibilities.”

Another difficult group to reach are people with experience in solid and nuclear fuels, says Aarni. “People who have experience in this area usually already have a job.” Fennovoima has been hiring about 100 people a year and will grow by 200 people in the coming years until the opening of the Hanhikivi plant in 2024.

“We have not succeeded in telling the world about our safety record. To convince people that nuclear is the safest and cleanest way to produce power”

How does she describe the company culture? “Safety is our core value”, she replies. “That’s what everyone needs to commit to. The responsibility at our company is bigger than what you have in most other places. We are also very results-oriented.  Many procedures are still under development. You need to try to find solutions.”

Cooperation and communication are also important values, says Aarni. “The hierarchy is very low.” In addition, people need to have a bit of a pioneering spirit to work on building a new nuclear plant, says Aarni, especially in such a far-away place as northern Finland. “Once we start on the construction, a lot of people will move up north. It will be a new beginning there. A real adventure with great responsibilities.”

Safest and cleanest

Despite the prevailing optimism in the industry, everyone is acutely aware that the future of nuclear power is not guaranteed. Insiders may be convinced that the world can’t do without nuclear, the outside world may not understand.

“We have not succeeded in telling the world about our safety record”, says Hietamäki. “To convince people that nuclear is the safest and cleanest way to produce power.”

Aarni concurs. “In the end, what matters is good communication to the outside world.”

According to Nathan Patterson, what needs to be done is “to bring nuclear power into the conversation. We should not just focus on energy prices. We should talk about what nuclear power can bring to our society over the next 50 years.”

“The question is about deep decarbonization, including in heating and transport. Nobody has the solution for that”

Patterson notes that “in 20 or 30 years we may have only EVs on the road. We will need reliable electricity for that. Once those conversations happen, it becomes clear nuclear has a role to play. If we want to build a better society, we need to think long-term. And to counter all the myths and sensationalized media reports about nuclear power. If we do that, I am sure there is enough interest among young people.”

Both Patterson and Desbazeille observe that the success of the next generation of nuclear will depend strongly on political support. “Because of issues around safety and public acceptance, nuclear needs strong political backing”, says Desbazeille. “It needs political stability.”

The big question in Europe today is how member states will decarbonize their energy mix. “This issue has not been addressed properly so far”, notes Desbazeille. “We want to get to 30% or 35% renewables in 2030. Fine, but that’s not nearly enough. A lot of people say this should be augmented by gas. But gas is still a fossil fuel. The question is about deep decarbonization, including in heating and transport. Nobody has the solution for that. I believe we can’t do it without nuclear. So I think the future for nuclear power looks good.”

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