Staffing an expanding nuclear industry

Skilled workforce shortages are common across industries. (Nursing etc…)
Besides spinning up new training and increasing recruitment the issue can also be addressed with increased automation, design and process improvement to reduce staffing requirements. The issue of staffing the nuclear industry is a known issue and is often cited as a reason that the nuclear industry cannot expand.

The number nuclear engineers being trained is increasing, college programs are being expanded or restarted and companies like General electric have initiated agressive recruitment programs. There is also the significant changes via design and management processes that are reducing staffing requirements per operating plant. There are 60,000 skilled nuclear workers and 20,000 of them could retire over the next five years, plus thousands more will be needed for new plants in the USA and around the world.

Comparison of some staffing levels for different modern nuclear plant designs. Avg nuclear plant staffing levels were 1000-1200 in the mid-90s (already down from 1970s and 1980s when it was about 1500 people per plant). New designs with staffing levels of 440-700 would reduce the staffing needs further. While there has been staff reductions all of the safety and operational metrics have been improving for the last three decades. Avg staffing levels are now at about 790-800 people.

Since staff costs typically account for more than half of a plant’s O&M cost, reducing staff should reduce O&M costs. Design concepts for new plants have focused on reducing the operations burden and thereby reducing staff, which leads to staff reduction and should ultimately lower operating costs.
This study used a task-based approach to determinine plant staff requirements for specific plant operation tasks. Starting with the staffing profile of a top-rated plant (North Anna), the study team reviewed the details of the new designs to determine if the advances in technology and information reporting would reduce overall staffing levels. Each task associated with plant operation was taken into account. A staff model was developed for each reactor type. This model maintains an adequate staff level to meet regulatory and best practice requirements.
The first new plants built in the United States will rely heavlily on current operational practices to ensure that the lessons learned over the more than 30 years of plant operation will be applied to the newest generation of plants. Therefore, for the purposes of this study, the organizational structure from the current operating philosophy was maintained. Although current staff structures differ between operating companies, they have a single overall goal—to reduce human error and equipment failure in all phases of plant operation and safety and to ensure an overall high operating capacity factor.
The staffing estimates used in this study include the onsite plant staff as well as additional staff that would be needed in the corporate office to support the additional units. These estimates also include corporate office support staff, which includes the staff who provide fuel design and procurement, safety analysis support, major modification development, and other more generic activities.

Overcoming the challenges of the workforce issues and knowledge maintenance.

US Nuclear industry staffing levels

Once base power rates were established through public utility commissions, opportunities for cost reductions through labor savings became available. By the mid-1980s, U.S. nuclear plant operators began looking for opportunities to reduce cost through staffing reductions. The next major adjustment in personnel levels in the U.S. began in mid 1990s with programs to “right size” the employee workforce. While effectively improving performance in terms of capacity factor, safety performance, and reduced refuel outage durations, U.S. NPPs began to consistently reduce employee staffing levels. Since 1997 average U.S. NPP staffing levels have dropped by more than 15%. These reductions appear to have recently leveled off.

As part of the reduction of total staff, along with the technical nature and training requirements for operating NPPs, employee skills set have become very focused. To offset this situation, most U.S. NPPs proactively encourage rotation and cross training of staff. This approach provides “bench strength” to provide additional personnel with experience and/or training while maintaining lower overall staffing levels.

Consolidation of NPPs into operating fleets has had a beneficial impact on developing and maintaining key knowledge.

Dealing with staffing reductions.

Getting nuclear engineering enrollment to 2000-4000 would turn out 700-1400 graduates per year who would help to stablize and eventually increase the nuclear workforce. GE and other companies could step up and offer more scholarships and incentives to further increase enrollment and provide university endowments to created new programs. Get enrollment up to 8000 and 2800/year graduates should be produced. Increase to 16,000 enrolled for 5600/year in graduates. Increase to 32,000 enrolled for 10,200/year in graduates. There are 104 plants in the USA now and with 800 people per plant the staffing level must be 83,000. Of those 60,000 have special industry skills. In 2017, if the increased training and recruitment programs restore the workforce to 60,000 people and the staffing requirements for old plants are brought to 20% less and new plants only need 400 skilled staff then 30 new plants could be adequately staffed. Further recruitment and training would allow for more industry growth. 300 plants by 2030 in the USA with 400 skilled staff per plant would require 120,000 people. In the 2010-2020 timeframe the number of graduates would need to increase to the 5600/year-10,200/year levels.

I had a prior article that constructing a lot of nuclear power plants is not materially constrained.

The nine components of nuclear plants which have limited suppliers are being built up by Areva and South Korea and others. So there will be more suppliers of currently limited parts. New factories to make things you need can be started.

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