Growth Challenges

Staffing China’s Massive Nuclear Power Program – The Challenge

In a year when many were questioning their long term commitment to nuclear power following the accident at Fukushima Daiichi in Japan, China continues to have the world’s largest and fastest growing nuclear program.  China currently has about 12 GW of nuclear power in operation and another 26 units under construction. It expects to meet and even exceed its previous 2020 target of 40GW by the year 2015.  At least 60 GW will be in place by 2020 (more likely about 75 GW or so) and then the boom really takes hold with targets of bringing in about 10 units per year achieving about 200 GW by 2030 doubling that by 2040.

I am in awe of this program as are most others who look in from the outside.  But of course, I am always floored to find out that currently in China they are commissioning a new coal fired unit each and every week!  Electricity growth is dramatic and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future.  And of most importance, if they can do with it coal, why not nuclear?

Many will say, well nuclear is different you know.  It requires a higher level of safety and a much larger contingent of people to build, operate and safely maintain all of these units.  So where will these people come from? 

Well, so far the experience in China has been excellent.  All of their current plants have had excellent construction records and while the operating staff are young and somewhat inexperienced, they are second to none.  In my own experience visiting the Qinshan Phase 3 NPP I have always been impressed by both the youth and professionalism and knowledge of the operating staff.  And this is for the only CANDU type plants in the country.  Even more effort is being put into meeting the needs of the primary PWR program.

The key in China is that the need for trained staff is clearly recognized and action is being taken to meet these needs.  On the one hand, for the large fleet of CPR1000 units, China is making use of its experience at Daya Bay.  The Daya Bay Nuclear Management Company is providing massive training at their site for the future operators of this standard design.  I visited this site in late 2010 and the commitment to training of both staff for the current plant and for the future made a significant impression on me.

The educational system is also geared up to provide more and more nuclear trained staff. After hearing that China routinely graduates about 300,000 engineers per year, it is easy to see that they have a large technical infrastructure.  Specifically for nuclear there are 37 universities offering undergraduate programs in nuclear graduating more than 1,000 students per year and growing.  There are about 2,500 students in graduate programs and this is also growing.  This is in addition to the movement of experts from other engineering disciplines and with fossil experience to the nuclear sector.  

But the question remains… could a shortage of skilled nuclear engineers curtail China’s ambitious NPP roll-out plans?  Already it is said that the nuclear regulator is understaffed.  Sometimes we in the industry forget what we have already accomplished in the past.  With over 400 nuclear plants in operation in the world, we tend to forget that most of these were brought into service within a 20 year period.  And at that time, we did not have the large number of highly experienced people (us gray haired folks) available to support the industry based on past practices – as this was the first wave of large scale new build.  Looking at France, they have almost 60 units in service, many of these being built in within a decade.  Given the scale in China, if France can do it, then why not China?  

The important question is whether or not China will take the time to learn from the west and so far they are.  I have had the privilege of teaching at the World Nuclear University (WNU) one week course “Key Issues in the World Nuclear Industry Today” at Tshinghua University for the past 5 years now and I have always been impressed with the quality of the students; a variety of people from academia, industry and government.  And we can also see the growth each year as the questions become tougher and knowledge base even better.

I hope that we will see more and more training of staff from other countries.  i.e. Chinese people educated in the west and western people educated in China.  An important lesson learned from the Fukushima accident in Japan is that for the nuclear industry, an accident somewhere is an accident everywhere – meaning we are all impacted by events no matter where they are.   China is taking its role as an emerging nuclear leader very seriously and I believe that to ensure the best and safest global industry, the interaction and sharing has to start at the stage of nuclear education.    And that means as much moving around of both academics and students as is reasonably feasible.

I certainly see the WNU as having a role in ensuring this cross fertilization and I hope that I can continue to play my small role in providing ongoing training going forward.

Lauren has worked in economic policy and research at the World Bank, World Economic Forum, EIU and for the governments of Sierra Leone and Guyana. She has learned Chinese since 1995, and lived in Beijing for almost six years, on and off since 1997. Lauren has a PhD in Economics from Peking University, an MSc in Development Economics from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and a B.A/B.Com from the University of Melbourne.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *