August 15th, 2007 06:06 EST
Nuclear Power Industry is Tackling a Lack of Skill
Washington -- The U.S. nuclear power industry is tackling a lack of skilled workers, insufficient manufacturing capacity and other problems as it works to expand its capacity to meet some of the projected increases in electricity demand.
The Bush administration and Congress, which see nuclear power as an essential part of energy security and any realistic climate change solution, have encouraged the expansion of the industry by streamlining the regulatory process and providing financial incentives for several new nuclear power plants.
Before the end of 2007, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) expects to receive three to five applications to construct and operate new reactors and about 10 more in 2008, according to NRC Chairman Dale Klein. Experts expect the first licenses to be granted in the beginning of the next decade.
FACING NEW CHALLENGES
Before ground is broken for new facilities, the industry must address shortages of skilled workers, limited U.S. manufacturing capability and uncertainty about future uranium supplies.
Retirements and attritions are expected to trim the industry’s work force by 40 percent over the next five years, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), an industry trade group. Companies are dealing with the expected personnel shortages stemming from the graying work force by offering re-employment to retirees, making operational changes and entering into partnerships with local colleges to train workers. The departments of Labor and Energy are helping the industry by awarding grants to universities to fund nuclear engineering, medicine and related programs.
But getting people educated and trained takes time, says NEI spokesman Steve Kerekes.
NRC’s Klein is particularly concerned about the lack of certified welders and other construction workers when the expected nuclear construction boom materializes.
But Andrew Paterson of Ecoenergy International, a renewable energy company, believes the industry has enough lead time – about four years to five years – to train enough welders with the support of labor unions.
In addition, several bills moving through Congress address shortages of a skilled work force and scientists in general.
The manufacturing sector that constitutes a supply base for the industry also has changed since it built the last plants. The number of domestic suppliers with nuclear accreditation dropped to 100 in 2006 from 500 in the late 1980s, according to NEI. As a result, the industry must rely on foreign manufacturers for many major components such as steam generators or reactor vessels. Most of these suppliers are operating at full capacity but are experiencing production backlogs because other countries, including China and Russia, also plan to expand their nuclear power sectors.
In addition, utility executives worry about the future supplies of uranium fuel. They say supplies will be uncertain after an agreement with Russia to provide uranium from its decommissioned warheads expires in 2013. The Russian supplies represent about half of the fuel burnt in U.S. commercial reactors.
Globalization of the nuclear power supply network puts an extra burden on NRC, which must assure the quality of parts and materials coming from all over the world, Klein said.
In May, at a forum in Paris, Klein proposed establishing “more extensive channels of communication” among national regulatory authorities to share information about inferior, counterfeit or defective components and equipment.
“We need to look at the same metrics and elevate our standards to the same level,” he said.
LOOKING FOR OPPORTUNITIES
Challenges to nuclear power expansion plans may present opportunities to other U.S. industries, according to NEI’s Kerekes.
He said that NEI tries to broaden awareness of these plans in the hope that some U.S. manufacturers will take an interest in becoming suppliers to the industry.
As for nuclear fuel, the Energy Department has been circulating among utilities an innovative plan to extract nuclear fuel from retired U.S. nuclear warheads and wastes from the process of enriching uranium for U.S. nuclear weapons, according to Kerekes. And, with prices for uranium ore skyrocketing, an interest in reviving U.S. uranium mining operations is growing, he added.
Ecoenergy’s Paterson believes major U.S. producers will consider catering to the nuclear industry’s needs when they see at least a dozen firm orders for new plants. Once they determine that starting new operations makes economic sense, those operations will be on the cutting edge of technology, he added.
Paterson said it is too early to tell whether revived U.S. uranium mining operations will make economic sense, given stricter environmental and safety requirements faced by the uranium mining industry today.
He believes, however, it does not matter that much because major suppliers of uranium ore such as Australia, Canada and Kazakhstan have much idle uranium mining capacity.
For more stories on nuclear energy, see Climate Change and Clean Energy.
(Distributed by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)