Europe’s nuclear revival lacks a key ingredient: skilled workers

The engine room at the EDF’s Flamanville 3 nuclear reactor in France. Photo: Nathan Laine/Bloomberg

The engine room at the EDF’s Flamanville 3 nuclear reactor in France. Photo: Nathan Laine/Bloomberg

Published Jul 8, 2024


Europe’s aggressive blueprint to bolster its nuclear fleet for the energy transition is jeopardised by a lack of key components: skilled workers.

Atomic power producers in France, the UK and Sweden are having trouble finding the hundreds of thousands of welders, engineers and planners needed for reactors they’re building now and ones they’re eyeing for mid-century.

That’s why representatives from Électricité de France SA (EDF) and three subcontractors gathered recently in a classroom at the Lycee Polyvalent de l’Edit in Roussillon, a small town near the Saint-Alban nuclear plant in the Rhone valley. In a new recruiting initiative, they were pitching internships and job opportunities to about a dozen high-school pupils taking industrial maintenance courses.

“Every company is hiring, notably in the nuclear industry, even more now with the new reactor projects,” Morgane Robin, a recruiter for Dalkia, a maintenance unit of EDF, told the pupils. “We’re counting on you and on your teachers to raise your skills.”

Nuclear energy is on the verge of a renaissance after 25 countries, including more than a dozen in Europe, set a goal to help triple global capacity. Yet their follow-through is hampered by a labour shortage so dire some French companies hire back retirees, the UK government advertises industry careers in London Underground stations, and a Swedish university offers free sandwiches to students attending information sessions.

“Nuclear is exiting a long winter,” said Philippe Lanoir, the president for industry and energy at France’s Syntec-Ingénierie business federation. “We’ll need trained resources to get projects off the ground. We don’t have much time to react.”

France finds itself lacking talent after EDF ended a decades-long building spree in the early 2000s, turning the industry into a dead-end career path. The workforce of about 220 000 is ageing out while potential replacements look elsewhere. The industry has outlined a plan to increase vocational training for labourers, technicians and engineers. Its target: Recruit 100 000 workers during the next decade.

Syntec, representing about 400 engineering firms, launched a teen-focused promotional campaign and is pushing to boost college and training programmes.

President Emmanuel Macron wants EDF to build six reactors for an estimated €67.4 billion (R1.3 trillion) and then plan for eight more. The ambitions might be affected by legislative elections. Marine Le Pen’s National Rally party, which dominated the first round of voting, wants to go further than Macron by building 20 reactors in coming decades. The second round is on Sunday.

Potentially, a quarter of the jobs created by EDF’s plans may go unfilled, Lanoir’s group estimates, as employees retire and take their expertise with them, schools lag in training and young people choose more dynamic, headline-grabbing industries such as solar and wind.

That’s a recipe for lengthy construction delays and massive cost overruns – failings the industry is notorious for. In addition, clean-energy target dates may be put at risk.

“Everybody wonders how we’re going to do all these new projects as we lack staff,” said Sebastien Cuquemelle, the former co-owner of engineering firm Probent, which was acquired earlier this year by construction group Eiffage.

EDF, which took 17 years to build its newest plant, identified lack of labour as the primary roadblock to carrying out the revival envisioned by Macron in 2022. That year, the company imported workers from North America to handle scores of reactor pipe repairs.

In the port of Cherbourg, where French nuclear submarines are built, Probent frequently offers retired welders and metal workers jobs in the shipyard and at the nearby fuel recycling plant run by Orano SA – which itself plans to build more facilities.

“Given that there’s competition for resources, some players are ready to offer pay increases that are bigger than in other sectors,” said Thomas Branche, the executive vice president of nuclear and energy new build at French engineering firm Assystem. Right now, the nuclear industry was one of the most attractive in terms of wages, he said.

EDF’s needs extend beyond France. It’s building the UK’s Hinkley Point C nuclear project, but that’s been delayed by labour shortages and supply-chain issues, with the price tag ballooning to about £48bn (R1.1 trillion), adjusted for inflation.

The utility and UK authorities are also seeking to convince private investors to help finance a pair of reactors at Sizewell. The projects are part of the UK’s commitment to quadruple nuclear-power capacity by 2050.

Reaching the target was expected to require 123 000 people this decade, the government said. To help bridge the manpower gap, the government and industry, including EDF, BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce, are committing £763 million to boost apprenticeships and skills training.

“We are delivering the biggest expansion to nuclear power in 70 years and need a home-grown pool of talent that will fuel our nuclear ambitions,” said Amanda Solloway, the minister for energy consumers and affordability.

The government believes one choice place to find that talent is on the Tube. From February through April, the Victoria, Paddington and Charing Cross stations featured ads for the UK’s Destination Nuclear portal: “Whatever you do, you can do nuclear.”

The intended audience was people open to changing jobs. A campaign would target younger people through social media and maybe TV commercials, a Destination Nuclear spokesperson said.

The website advertises more than 1 500 opportunities and says starting a career “is easier than you think”. The roundabout paths taken by seven people, including a former National Health Service administrator and an ex-hospitality worker, serve as case studies.

The industry is holding skills boot camps for mid-career professionals around the UK. Weekslong programsme to train health physics monitors and project controls planners were under way in June, with sessions for aspiring welders scheduled for July.

Sweden has six working reactors, and the government said it needed at least 10 more by 2045 to meet demand from the electrification of transportation and industries.

That necessitated hiring tens of thousands of workers, said Carl Berglof, the nuclear power coordinator.

“It would be strange for the educational system not to see the opportunities and address the issue,” he said.

State-owned utility Vattenfall, which operates five reactors, retrained employees and recruits from other industries known for major infrastructure projects, CEO Anna Borg said.

It was also collaborating with schools and universities to increase awareness. Uppsala University, north of Stockholm, organised free lunches where academics pitch courses and careers in atomic energy to students.

Teachers also lobbies colleagues in other departments to include the material in their courses, said Ane Hakansson, a professor of nuclear physics. Still, in 1 year, the nation educated only about 50 to 70 students specialising in nuclear engineering.

“It’s a bottleneck,” Hakansson said. “Some people say, ‘Let’s import workers from abroad,’ but that won’t be easy either as France, the UK and others have the same problem as us.”