PARIS (Reuters) – French energy giant ETF (EDF.PA) as Europe’s energy crisis renews nuclear power’s appeal, is seeking to hire a new generation of welders, pipefitters and boilermakers to repair old reactors and build new ones.
The problem is that such skilled workers are rare in France. EDF, known for its delays and costs in building nuclear power plants, said this month it would fly about 100 planes from the United States and Canada.
The electrician, who is in the process of being completely nationalized, is racing against time to ensure that its nuclear fleet is fully operational until winter. This year, his strength has already fallen to its lowest level in 30 years.
It’s not just about keeping families warm during the cold months in France and other European countries: Lower production this year is expected to wipe out 32 billion euros ($33 billion) from the company’s base revenue in 2022, hurting its financial stability.
While EDF aims to build at least six new generation nuclear reactors in the next 25 years, with a total investment of around 52 billion euros, the group has urgently intensified its recruitment drive across France.
Last month EDF co-financed the opening of a welder training center in Normandy – the École supérieure de warp welders (Hefais) – which will have about forty students this year and reach 200 by 2023.
However, it is a drop in the ocean. EDF estimates that the French nuclear sector will need to employ 10,000 to 15,000 workers annually over the next seven years.
EDF alone will have to find 3,000 new employees annually over this period – 15% of the workforce currently employed in nuclear power plants – compared to 2,500 during 2019-2022.
It wants to hire 1,000 welders by 2030, twice the number of workers today.
“These are very ambitious goals,” said Clément Beaulieu, director of French energy consultancy EnAppSys, noting that the scale of the country’s plans for new reactors could make it difficult to recruit the right staff.
“We haven’t had a construction movement like this in nuclear energy since the 1970s.”
France, like the rest of the West, has long suffered from a skills mismatch. Despite relatively high unemployment, France’s manufacturing, construction, engineering and information technology industries complain that they cannot hire the workers they need.
Reasons range from an education system that places less emphasis on practical skills to a perception of the industry as “dirty” and a barrier to jobs.
At Penley, the Normandy site chosen for the first of two new reactors, EDF is seeking to attract workers before the planned start of construction in 2024. The construction site should last for 12 years.
A framework agreement was signed with the unions on 8 November
The contract, seen by Reuters, includes a disturbance allowance equal to two months’ salary for relocation, a “spotting bag” to help workers familiarize themselves with the city and its surroundings, and a “relocation bag” from 9,000 to 11,250 euros per worker. – Assistance in finding housing and work for spouses – and other benefits for childcare and education.
Industry sources said the terms were very generous by EDF standards.
“In a location like this we want to attract staff for the long term, but this project will continue for some time,” Patrice Rech, head of recruitment at EDF, told Reuters.
The French industrial sector provides only 18% of jobs in the private sector, compared to 26% twenty years ago. Meanwhile, employment in services — from hospitality to finance — continues to grow.
In construction, new nuclear power plant projects must compete for the workers building other major infrastructure projects, from new railways around Paris to tunnels across the Alps into Italy.
Jean-Bernard Lévy, who was replaced as head of the ETF on November 23, blamed much of the company’s difficulties in fixing its reactors quickly on a lack of dedicated personnel.
Long training, hard work
Workers repairing plants afflicted by corrosion problems – which first appeared a year ago – are forced to work in an area of the reactor where radiation is high, so they can only walk through it, for a limited time.
Given the challenges of the job, industry insiders say a standard welder needs up to three years of additional training to work in the nuclear industry.
“To be a good welder, you have to be born into it. These guys work with molten metal at 1,500 degrees Celsius, and sometimes they have to be turned upside down,” said a welder in the nuclear industry.
“You start with 500 welders, and after five years you might only have five.”
To expedite repairs, EDF hired 600 specialized workers, including about 100 welders and pipefitters from Canada and the Westinghouse Electric Company to build the US nuclear power plant.
Unions and even industry officials blame the French government for what it calls a U-turn on nuclear power. Before the war in Ukraine, successive administrations sought to reduce France’s dependence on nuclear energy, not building new reactors, as they say.
France has long been the European champion of nuclear energy and the main source of electricity. A wave of plant building between the 1970s and 1990s gave the country today’s 56 reactors, before political and public sentiment began to cool.
Opposition from environmental groups and Japan’s Fukushima disaster in 2011 made investing in nuclear reactors a less popular option in a country that still derives 70% of its electricity mix from nuclear power.
President Emmanuel Macron was elected to his first term in 2017. However, this year he declared building new reactors a war in Ukraine, and the push for low-carbon energy production is making nuclear attractive again.
“We’ve been told for years, please prepare to shut down the reactors,” Levy said at a conference in August.
“Obviously, we’re not building people…the reactors, we’re hiring people to dismantle them,” he said, adding that the government’s 2019-2023 energy policy roadmap calls for 12 reactors to be shut down by 2035.
Now that the tide has turned in favor of nuclear power, EDF’s new CEO, Luc Raymond, told Parliament last month that “having cutting-edge capabilities throughout the nuclear supply chain is essential to raising production levels”.
($1 = 0.9620 euros)
Additional reporting by Lee Thomas, Writing by Sylvia Alosi, Editing by Daniel Flynn
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