BRUSSELS — Anthropocene Institute Nuclear Engineer and PhD candidate at UC Berkeley Dinara Ermakova spoke at the 20th edition of Les Entretiens Européens, themed “Nuclear power investments in a context of global instability and geopolitical change” this October. The event discussed today’s unprecedented geo-economic and geopolitical context, which calls into question the energy strategy of the European Union and its Member States, in addition to their relations with other countries worldwide.
Distinguished European dignitaries and nuclear experts discussed topics such as global investment trends, the impact of the global crisis on energy policies, and the nuclear industry’s response and innovations to achieve energy security, lasting peace, a more inclusive world, and climate goals. Among the main goals: posing the question, “Is Europe ready to reconsider the future of its energy mix?”
Greater reliance on nuclear
This is an important subject given the radical shift in relations with Russia, the case of France, whose reliance on nuclear energy is stronger than ever and sends a strong message to Europe and the rest of the world, as well as the general shift in public opinion regarding nuclear energy. In order to rebalance Europe's energy mix and ensure energy security and global competitiveness, speakers also discussed emergency measures, promoted nuclear power investment, and discussed the political issues surrounding the development of new nuclear projects around the world.
The rapid development of nuclear power plants in Russia and China, as well as their dominance in the case of Russia and their readiness to export nuclear technologies to the developing world, were also topics of discussion. It was stressed how crucial it is for European nations to review the financing options they can provide to developing nations in order to make nuclear power more affordable in terms of upfront costs.
The need for professional task forces
The changes that are necessitating a nuclear renaissance and the development of professional task forces were the main topics of Ermakova's presentation. She discussed the challenges in putting together a task force quickly that could be used as a springboard for international collaboration and partnerships aimed at training young professionals, exchanging experiences and knowledge, and facilitating foreign students' access to the nuclear energy sector job market.
Finding a workforce may be nuclear energy's biggest challenge, according to a collaborative "input/output" macroeconomic study by the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Although this topic has been discussed since the 2000s, it will be difficult to find a solution without cooperation as we reexamine nuclear energy's function and importance in a decarbonization strategy. Nuclear energy is a significant employer, with a 1 GW LWR employing at least 600 people per year over its 80-year lifespan and an additional 1,200 people per year during the construction and decommissioning phases, which, for nuclear power plants, could last ten years.
The inability to quickly and effectively prepare the professional task force may be hindered by knowledge transfer, restrictions on hiring foreign professionals in the nuclear industry, the high cost of engineers' education, and a limited educational infrastructure due to the closure of many nuclear engineering departments in schools over the last two decades. She talked about potential solutions, including industry involvement in the form of grants for students pursuing higher education with the goal of further employment.
A springboard for economic development
Countries in many regions of the world — South America, Africa, Eurasia, and Europe — are either planning to build or building new nuclear energy facilities, putting extra pressure on the need for skilled workers and for energy infrastructure. Because the majority of the new nuclear power adopters are emerging nations, which lack experience, expertise in licensing, and construction, they will rely on more experienced nations to build nuclear power plants. However, the preparation of professionals might be the issue that will be hard to outsource and may have a greater impact on these countries’ nuclear energy development.
Young experts must prepare beforehand, gain experience first, and then return to their countries with that knowledge to aid in the development of nuclear energy programs. In order to develop effective educational programs, offer on-site and off-site training, bring in professors to teach local students, and exchange professional and cultural experiences, cooperation and support are necessary. That will also help countries whose economies are primarily dependent on the trading of commodities, including uranium, gain access to education, energy security, and economic development. Ermakova closed with a call-to-action for young people: get involved in the industry and take advantage of the opportunities it affords, both to learn new skills and to be part of a growing industry that will provide more carbon-free, baseload energy than ever before.