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Nuclear Operators Forum Discusses Challenges in Finding and Retaining Talent

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Panellists at the Nuclear Operators Forum discuss workforce lifecycle needs, alongside returns associated with human capital investments. (Photo: D. Popovich/IAEA)

People, people, people. This is what the future of the nuclear industry comes down to, discussed participants at the seventh Nuclear Operator Organizations Cooperation Forum today. Initiated in 2011 as part of the IAEA Action Plan on Nuclear Safety, the Forum is held every year alongside the IAEA General Conference. This year’s event provided an opportunity for operating organizations to discuss challenges in human resources.

The extent to which nuclear energy can achieve its potential of contributing to peace, health and prosperity throughout the world ultimately depends on the availability of competent, qualified and capable staff, panellists said. The nuclear industry places very rigorous demands on such resources due to the complexity of the technology and the need for highly educated and trained staff that must adhere to high standards of performance and conduct.

The nuclear sector – industry, government authorities, regulators, R&D organizations and educational institutions – is facing an ageing workforce and declining student enrolment for expanding or newly established nuclear programmes.

Focusing on nuclear technology for the production of energy, the human resource issues become vital to at least three important groups:

  • Countries with existing nuclear power programmes, where there is an ongoing need for qualified nuclear professionals to maintain high safety standards in operating nuclear power plants. A stable long-term workforce is crucial when it takes 10 years or more to design, license and construct a nuclear power plant, then 60-80 years to run it, and finally another 10 years to decommission it.
  • Countries introducing nuclear power, where a new cadre of nuclear professionals must be educated and trained in basic nuclear technology in order to set up the domestic structures necessary for successful entry into the nuclear field. Whereas most new entrant countries will necessarily be dependent on supplier countries for the first set of nuclear plants, they must have their own regulatory body in place and functional before any operations are allowed.
  • Suppliers, where a full contingency of nuclear professions, including designers, fabricators, regulators, administrators and attorneys must be engaged to meet the needs of countries working to increase their current nuclear capacity with new builds and also of countries constructing a nuclear power plant for the first time.

“Nuclear is an industry where nothing gets done overnight,” said Stephan Solzhenitsyn, Senior Partner at McKinsey & Company’s Moscow Office. “The challenge begins with education, continues through cross-company and cross-border exchange, and requires a solid, long-term system of motivation and guarantees. In all this, national governments can be instrumental in bridging the gap – both across border and across time – that commercially-focused nuclear companies would otherwise face on their own. In short, nuclear needs national governments' help as a co-investor in the education and training process.”

It is therefore important that government agencies, industry and academia collaborate both nationally and internationally to create a functional framework to support proper training. Coherent intervention by all vested organisations, especially governments, remains vital to avert the risk of human resource shortages and to maintain the ensured flow of new recruits, to offset impending retirements.

David Drury, from the Department of Nuclear Energy’s, Nuclear Power and Engineering Section, concluded, “The IAEA helps Member States develop the required human resources to support operating, new and expanding nuclear power programmes, and organizes numerous capacity building and training events each year.”

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