By James Brown and Jeff Pang, Energy Consultants
Australia positions itself internationally as an economically and socially prosperous country with a bright and certain future, but there are concerns that its future as an environmentally responsible global citizen is less than certain.
Although the country ratified the Kyoto protocol in 2007 and will introduce a carbon tax in July 2012 with the aim of stemming the tide of rising emissions, an examination of economic factors in addition to the 'hard facts' reveals a reality that is difficult to ignore: Australia will find it almost impossible to meet its targets domestically without the introduction of a reliable and cost-effective low-emission energy source for its baseload electricity.
Australia's energy demand is expected to almost double by 2050, driven by population and economic growth. With large greenhouse gas emission targets looming, the inclusion of nuclear power in Australia's low-emission energy mix would provide some much needed certainty, in contrast to the unknowns around large-scale deployment of carbon capture storage and dependence on long-term foreign carbon offsets. Although policymakers have recently acknowledged in the Australian Government's Draft Energy White Paper (2011) that nuclear power may become a necessary component of Australia's electricity sector, there is currently no policy or strategy in place to secure the necessary workforce to facilitate the deployment of nuclear power plants.
But the introduction of nuclear power plants into a country that's involvement in the industry is currently limited to the mining, milling and export of its plentiful uranium deposits, will require considerable workforce training and development. At present, Australia produces only a small number of nuclear studies graduates each year. If Australia were to include nuclear power as part of its energy mix, it would need to train hundreds of nuclear engineering and science workers. While Australia is expected to require a workforce of up to around 9,800 on-site, off-site and contractor operational workers for its nuclear power plants by 2030, it is most likely that the initial workforce shortfall will need to be met by international expertise. Countries with civilian nuclear cooperation agreements with Australia, such as the U.S., will likely be the forerunners in meeting Australia's nuclear skills gaps.
Australia's energy intensive environment
Historically, the cornerstone of Australia's economic competitiveness has been cheap and abundant energy resources. But without nuclear in its low emission energy mix, it is questionable whether the country will be able to continue to compete with its Asian neighbors who are currently deploying nuclear power plants on a grand scale. Over half of the 65 reactors currently under construction throughout the world are in Asia. China plans to have up to 70 GWe of nuclear by 2020, and Australia's neighbor, Indonesia, has approved the construction of two small reactors and plans to have 6 GWe of nuclear power capacity by 2025.
Australia's abundant high-quality coal reserves have led to an industrial structure and way of life for households based on energy intensity levels matched by few other countries. With around 80 percent of Australia's eastern states' electricity generation coming from coal power plants, per capita greenhouse gas emission intensity levels have reached 27.3 tCO2e pa – which is over double the EU average and more than three times the global average.
As mentioned earlier, the Australian Government recently passed legislation to put a price on carbon from July 2012, initially at a fixed price of around AUD$23 per ton of CO2e, before floating freely from July 2015. The Government intends to reduce the nation's emissions by 80 percent by 2050. However, under its current policy it ambitiously seeks to reduce around half of its emissions through the purchase of foreign carbon offsets, with the remainder of its emission reductions to be achieved mainly through renewables and carbon capture storage. International experience suggests that emission reduction targets will be more effectively met by the inclusion of nuclear power plants into the electricity generation mix. The UK's Renewable Energy Review May 2011, conducted by the Committee on Climate Change, found that nuclear power currently appears to be the most cost-effective of the low carbon technologies. A recent study released by the Center for Policy Studies, The Atomic Clock: How the Coalition is gambling with Britain's energy policy (2012), finds that the delay in supporting new nuclear build in the UK is potentially increasing fuel poverty and damaging the economy, particularly energy intensive industries.
Nuclear scenarios for Australia
In the past decade, only a handful of reports have been released which consider the implementation of nuclear power in Australia. In 2006, the Australian government-commissioned report, Uranium Mining, Processing and Nuclear Energy — Opportunities for Australia?, considered the deployment of large nuclear power plant scenarios: 12 GWe and 25 GWe by 2050. More recently, consideration has been given to increasing the target to up to 50 GWe. In 2011, a report, Australia's nuclear options, commissioned by the Committee for Economic Development of Australia identified small modular reactors as a possible option for Australia.
Depending on the generation capacity scenario, it is estimated that Australia could require up to 9,800 nuclear power plant operational workers including scientists, engineers, technicians, managers, security, health and safety workers as early as 2030, and triple that number by 2050.
Specific occupations expected to be in high demand in Australia by 2030, include plant engineers (approximately 440), technical engineers (260), procurement engineers (70), drafting and design engineers (70), chemists (230), applied and support health physics workers (340), decontamination and radwaste workers (140), nuclear fuel workers (60), nuclear safety review workers (80), reactor engineers (55), quality assurance workers (110), quality control and non-destructive materials examination workers (90), and radiological engineering and ALARA workers (50). The power plant onsite, offsite and contractor workforce will total around 9,800 when combined with operations, maintenance, security and support worker requirements.
In addition to the long-term operational requirements, there will be considerable short-term construction workforce requirements and indirect employment for the nuclear fuel, waste and supply chain workforce over this period.
Naturally, the workforce estimates are preliminary at this early stage and provide at best only a broad range until Australia finalizes its nuclear energy policies, regulatory requirements, technology approvals and workforce strategies.
While the majority of the direct and indirect employment opportunities will likely be filled by domestic workers in the long term, a deployment of nuclear plants in Australia will be, at least initially, highly dependent on the international nuclear supply chain and workforce.
This presents both a challenge and an opportunity for the nuclear industries in North America, Europe and East Asia. The challenge will be for mature nuclear nations to retain a sufficient skilled nuclear workforce. The opportunity will be for vendors, manufacturers, and the nuclear supply chain in general to achieve greater economies from supplying a new market.
Australia's nuclear institutions
Australian workers with relevant skills for the nuclear industry and supply chain are currently limited to the uranium industry, regulators, academics and Australia's single research reactor managed by the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organization. ANSTO employs about 1,000 people, of which a few hundred are PhD-qualified scientists, researchers and engineers.
Although Australia has highly qualified nuclear scientists and researchers, and has developed revolutionary technology such as the Silex uranium enrichment, it currently does not have sufficient nuclear training programs and colleges to meet future demand. However, Australia does already have some of the key institutions in place to facilitate the training of a nuclear power program workforce. The Australian Institute of Nuclear Science and Engineering has a mandate to train scientific research workers in nuclear science and engineering fields, and the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency - which advises the government on issues related to radiation protection and nuclear safety - will also be able to assist with the development of the nuclear workforce.
Australia will need to continue to develop its educational network involving universities, colleges and industry in order to grow its nuclear skill base. In addition, the country should also take advantage of overseas training opportunities, such as those available through the World Nuclear University and the Asian Network for Education in Nuclear Technology, of which Australia's ANSTO is a member. There may also be opportunities for further involvement with educational institutions and professional organizations, such as Engineers Australia.
However, it will take time to ramp up Australia's nuclear education effort, particularly in the current environment of an aging workforce and a strong global demand for nuclear educators to train the next generation of nuclear workers. Furthermore, Australia's current demand for nuclear skills is low due to the limited job opportunities, and may not be sufficient to support expensive stand alone educational facilities. The building of alliances with education providers or networks overseas would provide a mechanism for overcoming difficulties with expanding local education and training efforts, and provide greater access to nuclear research facilities.
International nuclear education and training
Australia will benefit from working closely with the U.S., Canada and Europe and learning from their nuclear workforce programs and experiences. U.S. programs such as the Nuclear Uniform Curriculum Program (NUCP), which provides a standardized certificate program for educating operators and technicians for jobs at nuclear plants, could be replicated in Australia. The NUCP provides students with an accelerated pathway into the U.S. nuclear industry by preparing them to work at utilities.
Australia will be able to learn from the Center for Energy Workforce Development, which is joined by Nuclear Energy Institute and nuclear companies, and seeks to ensure a steady and highly trained workforce for the future by targeting students at the high school and college levels. The CEWD's programs include "Get Into Energy Career Pathways", which is intended to set students on a path to future energy careers by equipping them with the skills necessary for the energy industry, and could potentially be applied to a range of energy industries in Australia.
The U.S. nuclear industry's partnerships with the federal government, non-governmental agencies, and community colleges and universities appear to be successful and are attracting a growing number of students to join the nuclear energy field.
Similarly, the UK's experience with the National Skills Academy for Nuclear, set up to address the key skills and training challenges facing the industry, provides another successful template for Australia. The Skills Academy's Nuclear Skills Passport system increases up-skilling and workforce mobility across the sector, enabling existing employees' skills to be recognized and mapped against defined standard industry job context roles, highlighting gaps in skills and training.
Other professionals and support staff involved in the nuclear industry and supply chain could be up-skilled through additional training courses possibly based on the UK's Certificate in Nuclear Professionalism, also to be offered through the Skills Academy from 2012. The Certificate would be based on a modular framework and could assist recent graduates and experienced personnel from other sectors to transition into the nuclear industry.
Australia's transition into the nuclear skills and training sector will be made somewhat smoother by its membership of international nuclear bodies which support the development of civil nuclear energy programs, including the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Nuclear Energy Agency [a specialized agency within the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development], and the International Framework for Nuclear Energy Cooperation.
Australia has the capacity to work with these bodies to develop its future nuclear workforce, and deliver the quality and quantity of education and training programs to support the nuclear power deployment.
The IAEA encourages internationally compatible training and education, and its activities have focused on curricula for nuclear education, networking among universities, and internet platforms for nuclear education. The IAEA and IFNEC could assist Australia with the development of policies and strategies in nuclear education and training.
The United Arab Emirates' Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation, which has recently been commended for its effective use of international peer reviews and safety standards, is a solid example of how an emerging nuclear power nation can leverage off IAEA knowledge and experience to quickly develop its nuclear regulatory program. Australia could learn from the United Arab Emirates' human capacity building strategy, including the scholarship program, in which awardees can choose between the regulator and the nuclear power plant operator when they begin their careers.
Next steps for Australia
In order to deliver the necessary education and training for a nuclear workforce, Australia will need to ensure long-term certainty for the education sector. This would be achieved through bi-partisan parliamentary support, the provision of ongoing funding, and investment in facilities and suitably qualified educators. Significant financial resources are required to train highly skilled nuclear workers, such as with the establishment of nuclear chemistry and fuel cycle university infrastructure and facilities. Ensuring science and engineering education receives sufficient investment is crucial, as comprehensive nuclear knowledge and skills underpin nuclear safety. Whilst the highly skilled workforce can be trained in four to eight years, it takes longer to ensure a culture of safety at the operational level, requiring a commitment to ongoing nuclear workforce development.
Australia can align its nuclear workforce training and qualifications with international curricula and standards. Due to an increase in worker mobility, there is a strong incentive for an international approach to reassure employers that qualifications are of a similar standard wherever they are gained. The IAEA is reviewing national curricula and standards to ensure they are comparable and will be able to assist Australia with its nuclear course content and standard. Student and workforce migrations also provide multifaceted benefits for nations involved in the exchange, through increased generation and preservation of nuclear industry knowledge.
To establish a sufficient ongoing supply of skilled nuclear workers, Australia's workforce considerations should extend beyond tertiary education and involve engaging with high school students interested in studying nuclear subjects at universities.
Although both the UMPNER and CEDA reports highlighted the need for urgently establishing a national regulatory regime and training a nuclear workforce, Australia still does not have a dedicated school of nuclear science or engineering. However, courses are available that deal with aspects of nuclear physics, and suggestions have been made for the establishment of an equivalent of the previous School for Nuclear Engineering or the Australian School of Nuclear Technology.
As Australia has not yet developed its legislation or regulatory environment for nuclear power, the international nuclear community is presented with an opportunity for early engagement with Australia's energy policy makers and industry to promote the benefits of their respective technologies and products. Working with the nuclear industries in North America, Europe and East Asia in a coordinated fashion, will ensure mature nuclear nations retain a sufficient skilled nuclear workforce while facilitating knowledge, educator and skill transfers to Australia. Australia will benefit from developing networks early, and ensuring the necessary support workers, education facilities and business supply chains are operating effectively and safely in time for the first nuclear builds.
About the authors
James Brown and Jeff Pang are consultants to the energy industry in Australia with a focus on workforce development and scenario analysis. More detailed information in relation to their analysis of nuclear industry operational, construction and supply chain workforce requirements can be obtained from www.brownandpang.com
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