France races against time, seeking fitters to repair and build nuclear reactors

Photo: Andia Universal Images Group/Getty Images

As the energy crisis reawakens interest in nuclear power in Europe, French power company EDF is seeking welders, pipefitters and boilermakers to repair and build more nuclear reactors.

The problem in France, however, is the shortage of qualified workers. Around a hundred have been flown in from the United States and Canada by EDF, which is known for delays and cost overruns.

In order to ensure its nuclear facilities can run at full capacity during the winter, the utility, which is in the process of being fully nationalized, is racing against time. The number of outages this year has already resulted in its electricity output dropping to a 30-year low.

The company's core 2022 earnings are projected to be wiped out by EUR 32 billion this year due to lower production, jeopardizing its financial stability.

With EDF on the hook to build at least six new generation reactors over the next 25 years, at a total investment of some EUR 52 euros, the group is hurriedly ramping up a recruitment drive across France.

EDF co-financed the opening of a training centre for welders in Normandy, the Haute Ecole de formation en soudage (Hefaïs), last month, with an intake of around 40 students this year, expected to rise to 200 from 2023. However, that is just a drop in the bucket.

In the next seven years, EDF estimates that France's nuclear industry will require between 10,000 and 15,000 new workers.

During that time period, EDF alone must hire 3,000 new workers, or 15 percent of its nuclear plant workforce, up from 2,500 in 2019-2022. By 2030, it plans to hire 1,000 welders, double its current workforce.

“The country's plans for new reactors are pretty ambitious,” said Clement Bouilloux, French manager of energy consultancy EnAppSys. According to Bouilloux, recruiting the right workforce may prove impossible because of the size of the project, “we have not had a construction drive like that in nuclear since the 1970s.”

There has long been a skills mismatch in France, as in other Western countries. In spite of relatively high unemployment, France's manufacturing, construction, engineering, and IT industries have difficulty finding workers. A lack of practical skills in education, as well as a negative perception of industry, contribute to the problem.

As construction begins in 2024 on the first two new reactors at Penly in Normandy, EDF is trying to attract workers ahead of time. It is estimated that the project will take 12 years to complete. The unions signed a framework agreement on November8 to entice an initial batch of 70 skilled workers to move to Penly next year.

The new nuclear plants will compete for construction workers with other major infrastructure projects, such as new rail lines around Paris and tunnels through the Alps.