French nuclear sector risks serious lack of staff

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

PARIS, March 10 (Reuters) - France, the world's second largest producer of atomic energy, must act fast to avoid a shortage of skilled staff to run its reactors and win a role at the heart of a global nuclear revival.

An ageing workforce, a lack of courses and low enthusiasm among young engineers, for a field that is often seen as secretive or unsafe, all threaten France's ambitions for nuclear power.
"The ageing workforce issue is keeping countless CEOs awake at night," consultancy firm Capgemini said in a report titled "Preparing for the nuclear power renaissance".

Baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, are retiring. This is being felt acutely in the energy and utilities sector.

"The impact is likely to be more pronounced for nuclear power, because of special training, experience and licensing criteria," the Capgemini report said.
The number of schools that train nuclear engineers and plant operators has halved in the last 25 years, it said.

France, with 58 nuclear reactors, is counting on its expertise to win lucrative contracts if, as it hopes, many countries choose atomic power to increase their energy security and combat global warming.

It also needs to replace retiring staff at home.

"French utility EDF is in a state of alert, like many other nuclear operators, as plants date back from the 1970s or 1980s," said Laurent Turpin, head of the France's National Institute for Nuclear Science and Technology (INSTN).

Turpin estimated EDF needs to hire 10,000 new employees in the next 10 years, with half of them specialised in nuclear.

"This means 500 new engineers per year, including 20 percent for their international projects," he said, adding that only 350 nuclear engineers per year were currently graduating.
In the next three years, France must train around 1,000 nuclear engineers annually to make up for the decline, he said.

But candidates have been hard to convince since opinion turned against atomic energy as a result of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, the world's worst nuclear accident.
"We have to work upstream at the university level and also work on students' opinions," said Capgemini's Colette Lewiner.

"There is a need for information campaigns on student campuses and to introduce energy issues in schools," she added.

Another issue deterring engineers from the nuclear field is companies' reluctance to get involved in any bidding war for staff that would greatly inflate salary costs.

"The aim is not to overbid salaries as it's not in the companies' interest, but since markets are getting more dynamic it's normal that salaries should progress," said Pierre Herve-Bazin, recruitment head for French reactor maker Areva.

"So does this leave a resource gap?" Capgemini asked.

Even though utilities have responded by planning massive recruitment, some academics said the ageing workforce issue was likely to hold back the rebirth of nuclear.

"I think it could be a slowdown factor for the French nuclear programme," said Jean-Marie Chevalier, head of the geopolitical energy centre at Paris Dauphine University.

"For example, instead of construction taking eight years, it could take between 10 and 12 years," he added.

Others differed, saying there was still time to prepare on the technical, authorisation, equipment and recruitment levels.

"But nevertheless we need to worry about it," Capgemeni's Lewiner said.
Areva said it was feeling the pinch, even if the situation was not yet "dramatic" and the firm was still able to supply its clients.

"With growing demand for nuclear and a dwindling number of workers, this means that we have to recruit twice as much to alleviate the impact," said Herve-Bazin.

"And it's true that we feel a crunch, which is not going to improve with time," he added.
Areva plans to recruit 12,000 engineers and technicians worldwide in 2008, with between 4,000 and 5,000 in France.

EDF, the world's largest nuclear operator, has acknowledged the problem, especially as it is trying to expand abroad.

"Recruiting skilled workers will be a major factor," for EDF's future, Chief Executive Pierre Gadonneix said last month.

Industry players agree the problem could peak in the next four to five years and urgent action is needed to avoid shortages.

"We have a network of manufacturing industry schools that is still large," said Turpin from the INSTN. "We have to start working fast... but we have a bit of time," he said.

"We have an educational machine still working, even if it has slowed down because of lower demand for those careers, but it can restart very fast," he added.
(Editing by Marie Maitre and Anthony Barker)

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