Nuclear energy: Skills and the safety contract

The public debate on nuclear safety usually focuses on issues like waste disposal or radiation. But what about skills and management? (See 2007 update at the foot of this article)*

If ever there was an industry that should depend on the supply of a highly skilled and competent workforce, nuclear energy must be it. From operations and process, to oversight and safety, slip-ups are not an option. The skill levels required are high and take time to learn. Yet, though it gets relatively little public attention, the loss of experienced and competent personnel in nuclear technology is a growing concern to both regulators and the nuclear industry.

In some cases, the technical strength of staff has simply decreased since the days when they were busily designing and constructing nuclear power plants. Now, some nuclear operating organisations have difficulty finding the external support they need to maintain and operate their facilities. Additionally, suppliers of specific nuclear equipment are disappearing from the market and as a result the in-depth knowledge on the design features of their equipment is being lost. Some nuclear power plant vendors that have merged with other companies no longer offer their earlier designs. New skills have to be learned, while at the same time nuclear research institutes and other expert organisations have reduced their staff and budgets.

A skills gap has emerged, and the question is how to fill it. One alternative is for the licensees to strengthen their overall technical support services or at least maintain expertise in vital areas. But this is expensive, and stiff competition in energy is leading licensees to reduce operating costs, which in turn can lead to safety challenges. The other solution is to use consultants and specialised companies that offer contracted services. The drawback then is that the expert knowledge and experience of these contractors is often limited, and might not include a comprehensive understanding of a particular plant’s safety system. Also, consultants will require guidance and supervision by the operating organisation, which can take precious expert time away from real tasks.

Maintaining public trust makes it all the more important for the licensee to retain control over the nuclear safety aspects of the technical support services and contracted work.

A 2004 survey by the Nuclear Energy Agency, focusing on licensing, process control, safety issues and other inspection areas, shows that nuclear plant licensees in all 14 countries that responded use contractors. The spectrum of contracted activities includes maintenance, inspections, some engineering for updating and so on, particularly during outages, and analytical services. Management and operator tasks, such as control room operations, are not contracted out.

While fewer key suppliers of nuclear components exist because of streamlining and mergers, many small expert contractors are still available and sufficient competition continues. In France, for example, there are approximately 600 contractor firms working in 58 nuclear plants, with a turnover of 800 million euros/year. The French market is relatively dynamic though, even there, the turnover of staff is quite high. Two decades ago, when the industry was growing fast, it was much easier for licensees to keep staff on the payroll for outages and maintenance, but today such work has become scarcer and spread across several plants.

In some countries, like Sweden and Italy, plants are actually being closed down. These trends have not helped the appeal of nuclear engineering as a career. There are some signs of a renewed interest in nuclear energy among graduates and some governments, and efforts are being made to put more funding into colleges to train engineers. But it will probably remain a niche workforce, with markets like France becoming attractive destinations for engineers from other countries. This could push up demand for appropriate skills and competence, and drive up the costs of specific skills. In short, it seems clear that the use of contractors will continue, but what is important is to clearly recognise how and what work they do, and how it might be managed to assure safety.

Responsible matter

One of the keys to ensuring safety at nuclear power plants, as well as many other industrial facilities, is to be clear about who is responsible for what. Failure to do so can lead to tasks undone or poorly done, producing in certain cases the opposite of the intended outcome. As Nils Diaz, chairman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, told a NEA forum in 2004, not assigning responsibility clearly at the outset can mean jobs not being done at all. “Someone should have done it; Anyone could have done it; Everyone thought that Someone would do it. In the end, No one did it. At the beginning, the responsibility was not assigned,” he said.

There is a need to develop a concrete description of what is meant by “the licensee has full responsibility for the safety of the plant”, since no internationally accepted understanding of this exists today.

But ultimately, the licensee is always responsible for safety. Core activities such as control and supervision of operation, or quality assurance, should not be contracted out. In order to fulfill their responsibilities, they must be “smart buyers” and “intelligent customers”. This requires good control, supervision and oversight of contractors’ work. And licensees need to develop strategies for dealing with diversified contractors who are becoming more global.

Regulators, for their part, must provide clear explanations of what is required to the highest management levels of the licensee or its parent organisation, and like the licensee, they must closely follow the contractors’ actions.

That means having the appropriate expertise and resources, etc., with the capability for independent or self-review, as well as a command of the global nuclear and contracting environment.

International guidance is needed from the NEA and other organisations to determine the core tasks that cannot be outsourced and must be conducted by the licensee’s staff. These include the control and supervision of operation and maintenance programmes, quality assurance oversight, health, safety assessment capability and the integration and oversight of all activities that may affect plant safety.

Contracting work out is not a threat to safety in itself, though management of the tasks on site must still remain in the hands of the licensee. So, while outsourcing work can be economically efficient and deliver the labour the nuclear industry needs, it is far from cost free. In other words, good outsourcing demands good management, too.

*UPDATE November 2007: OECD/NEA countries adopt a statement about qualified human resources in the nuclear field

References

The NEA survey on contracting is available online or can be requested at observer@oecd.org.

Kaufer, B. (2004) “Safe nuclear power plants: technical support services and contractors”, available in NEA News, No 22.2.

©OECD Observer No 246/247, December 2004-January 2005




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