Dr Daric Erminote

Mar 14, 2021

58 min read

Immersive Read: Engineering Nuclear Industries and Nuclear Development in Human Society and Recognition

Abstract: The life cycle of the nuclear industry is no different to that of any other industry, indeed to most forms of human activity: birth, growth, maturity, decline, rebirth and renewal or death. The nineteenth century industries such as railways, chemical manufacture, steel production have experienced the full cycle whilst newer industries such as space, aviation and nuclear are only part way through. Economic development and economic needs depend where any industrial sector of a country is found on the life cycle. For the nuclear industry, some countries are at the stage of maturity; some have entered the stage of decline and are contemplating whether to favour renewal or to close the industry; others are just starting out with new build.
Although the life cycle might be a common factor of industrial activity, each industry has its own distinguishing, unique features that set it apart from the others. The nuclear energy sector is characterised by long time scales and technical excellence. The early nuclear plants were designed to operate for 30 years; today the expected lifetime is 50–60 years. When a nuclear plant is closed, decommissioning and decontamination may last as long as its operational lifespan, possibly longer. From cradle to grave may be in excess of 100 years. The rapid technical evolution of the industry would not have been possible without myriad high-quality research and development programmes. Through such programmes and through the associated links with universities and research institutes have come not only technical knowledge but also the technically competent staff necessary for the safe running of the industry.
As a result of the twin facets of long time scales and essential technical competence the industry now faces two problems: how to retain existing skills and competences for the 50 plus years that a plant is operating when the industry in that country may be in a position of maturity or decline on the life cycle and no further build is imminent and how to develop and retain new skills and competences in the areas of decommissioning and radioactive waste management when the latter are seen as “sunset” activities and are unappealing to many young people.
These problems are exacerbated by the increasing deregulation of energy markets around the world. The nuclear industry is now required to reduce its costs dramatically in order to compete with generators that have different technology life cycle profiles to its own. In many countries, government funding has been dramatically reduced or has disappeared altogether while the profit margins of generators have been severely squeezed. The result has been lower electricity prices but also the loss of expertise as a result of downsizing to reduce salary costs, a loss of research facilities to reduce operating costs and a decline in support to the university in order to reduce overheads.
All of which has led to a reduction in technical innovation and a loss of technical competences and skills. However, because different countries are at different stages of the nuclear technology life cycle, these losses are not common to all countries, either in their nature or their extent; a competence that may have declined or be lost in one country may be strong in another. And therein lies one solution to the problems the sector faces — international collaboration.

The OECD/NEA report Nuclear Education and Training: Cause for Concern? published in July 2000, quantified, for the first time, the status of nuclear education in member countries. It confirmed what many had long suspected: that, in most countries, nuclear education had declined to the point that expertise and competence in core nuclear technologies were becoming increasingly difficult to sustain. Although the overall situation appeared bleak, some encouragement could be gained from the diverse range of initiatives that were identified. If they were not responsible for an expansion in nuclear education and training, they were at least arresting its rate of decline. With the objective of building on these existing initiatives and stimulating new ones, the report made a number of recommendations to government, universities, industry and research institutes.

Countries have recognised the issues and there has been good progress against the recommendations of the report but more needs to be done.

While there is a wide range of activities in all countries, there is no evidence of a breakthrough in addressing the demographic down turn; nevertheless, such activities have begun to ameliorate the situation.

The provision of necessary specialist nuclear education is under threat.

Countries should seek to borrow good practice from other countries to enhance their domestic programmes.

Countries should widen their knowledge base through national and international initiatives.

Government, academia, industry and research organisations should collaborate both nationally and internationally to secure access to essential nuclear expertise.

Conducting manpower surveys is an important way of assessing present and future competence requirements.

Attracting high quality technical graduates into the nuclear sector is a challenge.

To ensure that supply and demand are as evenly matched as possible, it is worthwhile carrying out a manpower assessment every few years.

Industry and research organisations should increase their interaction with university science and engineering departments in order to raise the profile of the nuclear industry so that more students consider it when deciding on career choices.

In recent years, publicly funded nuclear R&D has experienced a drastic reduction in most countries.

The main focus of R&D is the safety of existing nuclear power plants and waste management issues. Commitment to innovative, future reactors is far from preeminent in most countries.

Publicly controlled funding of nuclear R&D should not be allowed to decline to the point that the retention of skills and competences are jeopardised.

Those responsible for funding nuclear research and development should seek to ensure that education and training aspects are an integral part of activities.

If nuclear power is to continue to evolve, commitment to developing innovative new plant is required. A mix of industry and public funding would seem an appropriate way forward.

International collaboration in nuclear research and skills provision is well established and has become an essential way in which countries are able to meet their responsibilities.

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