Plugging the skills gap

28 March 2010

The UAE and Jordan are attempting to develop a local workforce of engineers to manage and operate their nuclear energy programmes

Building up a qualified workforce of nuclear operators is one of several challenges the UAE, Jordan, and other Middle East states seeking to establish nuclear energy programmes, will have to overcome.

In the years after the 1986 accident that ripped apart reactor number four at the Chernobyl plant in Ukraine to devastating effect, nuclear technology fell out of favour. Many countries abandoned plans to establish atomic energy programmes, while others vowed to phase out their existing facilities. And few university entrants were interested in pursuing a career in nuclear fission due to its tarnished reputation as a suitable form of power generation.

In numbers

  • 500: Applications submitted for 38 places on the UAE’s nuclear energy scholarship scheme
  • 2,300: The number of staff Abu Dhabi will need to run its nuclear energy programme
  • $173m: Value of the contract to develop a 5MW nuclear research reactor in Jordan

Source: MEED

Seeking expertise

Today, however, the sector faces a worldwide renaissance. Nuclear technology is increasingly regarded as an affordable and viable low-carbon source of energy. Safety concerns have been alleviated by a new generation of reactors built to withstand earthquakes and aircraft impact. About 50 countries have expressed an interest in adding nuclear power to their energy portfolio to the Vienna-headquartered International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

As a result, the industry faces an acute shortage of personnel. Leading experts are now approaching the end of their careers and there is a limited talent pool behind them. It is estimated that Abu Dhabi alone will require up to 2,300 nuclear scientists, technicians and support staff to run its nuclear energy programme over the next decade. The expertise required includes nuclear, electrical, mechanical, chemical and structural engineers as well as personnel to deal with regulatory and safety issues.

The IAEA advises the building of a research reactor first in order to train staff in reactor operation

But the Middle East has few courses available to train students in these areas. Traditionally, countries preparing an atomic energy programme have built up their human resources over several decades. Indeed, the IAEA advises the building of a research reactor first in order to train staff in reactor operation and nuclear fuel and waste management.

Jordan is doing just that. It started to address human resources development several years ago, and next year the first 20 students will graduate from the nuclear engineering department at the Jordan University of Science & Technology.

The university will soon have its own research and training reactor. In December 2009, the Jordan Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC) awarded a South Korean team of Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute and Daewoo Engineering & Construction a $173m contract to develop a 5MW nuclear research reactor by 2014.

JAEC and the university will use the facility for research, development and training, as well as for radioisotope production for medical purposes. The construction team will also be obliged to provide training for several hundred Jordanian engineers. Some 300 will be trained during the pre-construction phase and another 300 will be trained during the construction phase. The investment in training forms part of an initiative by Jordan to establish a nuclear energy industry and exploit its untapped reserves of uranium, which are estimated to total around 70,000 tonnes.

Jordan plans to build at least four nuclear reactors over the next 30 years and says atomic power could account for more than 70 per cent of electricity generated in the country by 2040. The first power plant is likely to be built at a site 25 kilometres southeast of Aqaba and is intended to come on stream by 2018-19. Six international firms have submitted bids for the contract to study the site, and an award is expected by the end of August. A second site in Eastern Badia is under consideration to house subsequent plants.

The UAE has taken a different approach. Faced with a looming power shortage, Abu Dhabi is fast-tracking its nuclear programme. Without a research reactor and before a nuclear engineering course was available in the country, a tender was issued for the construction of four reactors by 2020. To save time, the federal government decided it would import all the technology and expertise required to set up a nuclear industry.

Gas availability

Due to export commitments and other domestic needs, the amount of natural gas available to the UAE’s electricity sector is only sufficient to meet up to 25,000MW of demand, but consumption is forecast to exceed 30,000MW by 2020. It has just 10 years to plug the power gap – exactly the length of time it generally takes to build a greenfield nuclear power facility.

Studies have shown that renewable power supplies would only be able to meet a maximum of 6-7 per cent of the UAE’s peak electricity demand by 2020, and the federal government has identified nuclear energy as the best solution for meeting its feedstock issues. It ruled out the large-scale burning of liquid fuels as being too costly and environmentally damaging, likewise coal-fired power generation. Without a talent pool of its own, the UAE is 100 per cent reliant on outside assistance in setting up its nuclear power programme, but it does not intend to be dependent on others for ever.

The Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (Enec), the body that was set up to manage the UAE’s nuclear industry, says that one of the main considerations in awarding the $20.4bn deal for the construction of the four reactors to the South Korean consortium led by Korea Electric Power Corporation (Kepco) was its “commitment to and detailed planning for, human resource development in the UAE in support of the development of a sustainable, domestically sourced nuclear energy workforce that is dominated by competent
national talent”.

The first of the four reactors is scheduled to begin providing electricity to the grid in 2017, with the three later units being completed
by 2020.

Under the deal the South Koreans will also assist with research, education and vocational training. This will include an exchange programme both for students and lecturers between the two countries to promote knowledge transfer and creating new divisions and developing new curricula at the Khalifa University of Science, Technology and Research (Kustar) in Abu Dhabi. The institutions involved in providing this training in addition to Kepco, are the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, Human Resources Development Service of Korea and Korea Development Institute. The agreement will also provide an exchange of nuclear safety expertise with the Korean Institute for
Nuclear Safety.

There is no shame in asking for assistance from those who know and already have gained experience

Abdelmajd Mahjoub, Arab Atomic Energy Agency

Inevitably, Enec will be reliant on expatriate workers for many years yet, but it says it wants to “build the capacity to eventually staff the vast majority of the nuclear energy programme with national talent, and to develop the industrial infrastructure and commercial businesses to serve a thriving nuclear energy industry”.

The idea is for the UAE to model its nuclear industry on South Korea’s, which was developed over the past 30 years. In the process, both technology and knowledge will be transferred from Asia to the Gulf state.

State-run Kepco says it has the world’s third largest nuclear energy business with an installed nuclear generation capacity of 17,716MW as of the end of 2008. It operates 20 commercial nuclear power units, with eight more units currently under construction and an additional 10 units planned to be built by 2030.

The Abu Dhabi plant will be built using 1,400MW reactors, the design of which was developed over a 10-year period in South Korea, beginning in 1992. The first power plant to use these units is currently under construction and will be connected to South Korea’s electricity grid by 2013. Kepco will construct reactors that are essentially the same as these reference plants, but with modification to suit the UAE’s climate. It has been suggested that Enec is planning to build up to 11 reactors, and it could be that some parts might eventually be fabricated in the emirate.

Enec together with Kustar kicked started the process of training nationals to work in the nuclear industry last year, while it was still deliberating which consortium would win the $20bn contract. In May 2009, it launched the UAE nuclear energy scholarship programme. More than 500 applications were received and eventually 38 students were awarded a scholarship to study at institutions in the UAE, France and the US.

The scholarship program offers UAE nationals sizeable scholarships to undertake a bachelor’s or master’s degree in nuclear, mechanical, or electrical engineering after which the student will work in the country’s nuclear energy industry. The scholarship for a bachelor’s degree is worth up to AED18,350 ($5,000) a month, while the master’s package is worth AED40,000 a month.

To complement this scholarship programme, from 2011, a preliminary energy course will also be taught high schools.

Window of opportunity

The construction of nuclear power plants takes between seven and 10 years. For Jordan and the UAE this is a window of opportunity to train some home-grown talent. It will not be long enough for them to set up their nuclear programmes alone but it is the start of the process of taking ownership of what is an industry of strategic national importance. Furthermore, the fact these Arab states are obliged, through lack of alternatives, to co-operate with foreign experts operating under international law offers much reassurance to those that are wary about new countries adopting nuclear power.

“There is no shame in asking for assistance from those who know and already have gained experience,” says Abdelmajd Mahjoub, head of the Tunisia-based Arab Atomic Energy Agency. “That is how we will be able to move forward and avoid the mistakes that have been made before.”

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