Nuclear Help Wanted

Israel is usually reticent about its nuclear-power plant near Dimona. Why, then, was Israel's Atomic Energy Commission showing footage of the facility at a recent job fair at Ben-Gurion University? At a time when Israel is cutting back on higher education, the demand for nuclear engineers abroad has soared, leading to a brain drain. Even the prestigious Weizmann Institute has lost physicists for jobs abroad. In Olkiluoto, a tiny peninsula off the Finnish coast, 2,600 workers hailing from 20 different countries are struggling to complete the first new nuclear-power station to be built in Western Europe in 20 years. The project is two years behind schedule, and manpower is part of the problem. Only one third of the current work force is Finnish.

The industry's boosters (and many environmentalists) talk boldly of a "nuclear renaissance," driven by growing demand for energy and concern over emissions. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, 60 new reactors could be on line in the next 15 years, many in countries that had once forsaken nuclear energy as an option. The British government last week announced plans for a new generation of reactors, the first in more than 10 years. In the United States, 20 new plants have been proposed. France last month began work on a new reactor; Ukraine—site of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster—plans to build 11 more by 2030. As the industry slowly returns to favor, it's grappling with a shortage of engineers and other highly trained staff needed to certify and build new plants, to operate existing ones and to shut down antiquated models safely. "Unless action is taken, this [shortfall] could be a real threat to countries wanting to invest in new plants," says Luis Echávarri, director-general of the Nuclear Energy Agency of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris.

The cause is no mystery. After accidents at America's Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, governments and the public had little enthusiasm for investing in a nuclear future. Students turned to more promising fields. "Why on earth would anyone have gone into an area that was seen as having no future?" says Robin Grimes, professor of material physics at Imperial College London. Universities cut back as demand fell; today just 30 American colleges are offering courses in nuclear engineering, less than half the figure in 1980. Over the same period, the number of U.S. colleges with their own research and test reactors fell from more than 60 to 23.

The consequences are an aging work force low on essential skills. The average age of nuclear-industry employees in Britain is now above 50. Many experienced engineers are near retirement. "Some 80 percent of the knowledge is in 20 percent of the work force, and they tend to be at the top of the pyramid," says Jean Llewellyn of Britain's newly created Nuclear Academy in Workington, close to the Sellafield nuclear site, which aims to boost training and recruitment. The giant French utility EDF says it plans to recruit 10,000 staff over the next five years, many of them young graduate engineers, at tempting starting salaries of up to $60,000.

Competition is tight at every level. Despite the recent collapse of the building boom, engineers of any description are already in short supply in much of Europe and America, and so too are the welders, electricians, pipe fitters and workers in other trades. Many of the specialists needed to monitor staff for radiation exposure have found more lucrative work in medicine, and demand for their services in the nuclear industry now outstrips supply by 130 percent, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute in Washington.

In the United States, rising salaries and the promise of secure employment are pushing up enrollment in some university programs. The U.S. nuclear industry, no longer desperate, is still worried. Speed is crucial. The French firm Areva, which recently signed a deal to build two plants in China, wants to add 10,000 new staff this year. "We are facing a completely different situation from in the '80s and '90s," says spokesman Julien Duperray. "The market is just exploding." If the world is ready to risk a return to nuclear power, it must reinvest in personnel too.