Nuclear industry in midst of skills crisis

| Sunday, Dec. 19, 2010

OLKILUOTO, Finland — On a flat, low-lying island nestled in crisp waters off the west coast of Finland, the first nuclear power plant ordered in Western Europe since 1986 is inching towards start-up.

More than 4,000 builders and engineers are at work on the sprawling Olkiluoto 3 project, whose turbine hall is so cavernous it could house two Boeing 747 jets stacked on top of each other. When it is dark, which in winter is most of the day, enormous spotlights throw into focus scores of scaffolding towers and the red hauling equipment that encircle the grey, unfinished reactor building. The heavy reactor vessel, made to withstand temperatures over 350 degrees Celsius, has been gingerly lifted into place by two cranes. Inside the building, a dozen workers carrying a single pipe across their shoulders create a human caterpillar that carefully wends its way through tarpaulin-covered tunnels lit by lamps and chinks of daylight.

Walking through the expansive complex, still missing a domed cover on the reactor building, it takes a while to make out a peculiar but important detail: Many of the engineers and building experts working here are in their late 50s and early 60s; some are in their 30s, but few are in between.

There's a hole in the nuclear workforce, not just in Finland but across the Western world. For the moment, the operator of the Olkiluoto 3 plant, power utility Teollisuuden Voima Oyj (TVO), is getting by with its most experienced staff. As those workers retire, though, the skills shortage could become a crisis.

"The nuclear industry has been in the desert for years and years and the question is how to revamp it and how to revamp human resources," said Colette Lewiner from Cap Gemini, a consultancy firm which raised concerns about the aging nuclear workforce in a report in 2008 and has warned "there will be no nuclear power renaissance" without efforts to tackle the problem. "The industry needs to ramp up and it needs to do it quickly."

Like a growing number of nations, Finland sees nuclear power as vital to its future prosperity. Olkiluoto 3 is the biggest investment in the history of Finnish industry. Helsinki wants nuclear power to provide more than a third of the country's electricity by 2020, reducing its dependence on carbon-emitting fossil fuels and energy imports from Russia. Globally, 15 countries are building 63 nuclear power plants, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N.'s atomic body. More than 65 other states, newcomers to the technology, are jostling for advice on nuclear power.

Completion of Finland's 1,600 megawatt reactor, built by French energy giant Areva and designed to withstand a plane crashing into it, is running four years late and will turn out far more expensive than its original $3.95 billion price tag. Areva alone has already taken $3.6 billion in writedowns on the project.

But delays and cost overruns are nothing compared with the skills crisis the project has helped expose, which is already affecting the nuclear sector around the world.

"The global community is facing this big problem -- where is this human resource?" said Yanko Yanev, head of the IAEA's nuclear knowledge management unit, set up 10 years ago when the Vienna-based agency first sounded the alarm. "When we started this program, people said, 'Ah, give us a break!' Now they are realizing the problem is more complex than they had first thought."

Industry abandoned

Simply put, the cause of the looming shortage can be pinned on two events: Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986.

In its first few decades, full of optimism and hope, the nuclear age was run and staffed by workers who had graduated between the early 1940s and late 1960s. People like Esa Mannola, who is responsible for nuclear safety at Olkiluoto. Mannola studied technical physics in the late 1960s and after a brief stint of military service, took a job working on the first two nuclear units based on Olkiluoto, which went online in 1979 and 1982. Like about 40 percent of TVO's staff, Mannola is older than 50.

"Nuclear was a brand new technology and it was exciting," he said, sitting in a bright conference room not far from where enormous parts for the reactor have been shipped in and hauled into place. "I felt it would be important for the country's future."

Now head of a specialist team of around 20 people at TVO, the wry, softly spoken 62-year-old manager said he is always on the lookout for potential new hires, but has struggled at times to find young people to fill highly specialized roles.

That's not surprising. After Long Island and Chernobyl, many countries put their nuclear plans on ice or phased out nuclear altogether, moving instead to more affordable fossil fuels. Students turned away from the nuclear sector, recruitment stagnated and many workers left.

"Nuclear did not create a permanent demand on the market so that people could see it as a prospective career," IAEA's Yanev said.

The malaise lasted for well more than a decade and created what Jorma Aurela, 51, chief engineer in Finland's energy department, calls a "lost generation."

"Many of us were paralyzed. The people in this generation did not have a good future in front of them," said Aurela, who graduated just before the Chernobyl accident and as a young worker, used to occasionally tell people he was studying history because he was embarrassed to be associated with nuclear power.

About half of his classmates quit the sector, he estimates.

"Some have been found again, but some are lost," he said. "They are lost to other parts of the industry or are mentally lost — they do not want to work for this industry again."

That's left older workers running Finland's plants, and could threaten the country's planned nuclear growth, especially as Helsinki has just approved plans for two more new plants.

Silver tsunami

It's a similar story in other parts of the Western world. French utility EDF said about 50 percent of employees in its nuclear branch will retire by 2015 and that its workers are on 43 or 44 years old.

In the United States, the peak age of workers in the nuclear sector is 48 to 52, while Britain estimates that up to two-thirds of its top-tier nuclear managers will retire by 2025.

Worldwide, the nuclear industry employs about 250,000 people. Many first-generation nuclear staff have just retired or will do so in the next few years, taking with them skills and knowledge of complex, costly projects — just as the nuclear renaissance gets underway.

Sometimes referred to as a "silver tsunami", the departure of the first generation of nuclear workers is a big concern for the IAEA, which promotes civilian nuclear technology alongside its role as atomic watchdog.

Many countries and private firms have new units planned or under construction, the agency said in a September report for a conference of its 151 member states. "(They) are facing shortages of experienced personnel and loss of knowledge as they look to replace retiring staff for their existing fleet while at the same time staffing new projects."

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