Shortage of qualified EU nuclear personnel

24 April 2013

A comparison of the supply of nuclear experts by the nuclear education and training infrastructure in EU-27 and the demand by the nuclear energy sector of the EU has been carried out. Although at a country level the data is varied, the overall results showed that the supply of nuclear experts in the EU-27 in general covers at best only 70% of the demand for these experts within the nuclear energy sector. By Veronika Simonovska and Ulrik von Estorff

The qualitative and quantitative lack of sufficient expertise in the EU for the nuclear energy sector was first officially acknowledged by the Council of the EU in December 2008, although awareness of the problem dates back to at least 2000, when it appears in an OECD report. At the EU level, the EHRO-N or the European Human Resource Observatory for the Nuclear Energy Sector, was initiated in 2008 by the European Nuclear Energy Forum (ENEF), a platform for EU nuclear stakeholders to discuss transparency issues as well as the opportunities and risks of nuclear energy.

EHRO-N's main task is to build a system for monitoring the supply of and demand for relevant experts needed for the nuclear energy sector in the EU-27 for the years to come. EHRO-N began its work in 2009 and was officially launched in December 2011. The first supply/demand EHRO-N report was issued in May 2012 and its findings are the basis for this article. The operating agent of EHRO-N is the Institute for Energy and Transport, one of the seven research institutes of the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission. It is aided by the Senior Advisory Group (SAG) of nuclear energy experts in academia, industry or regulation. The SAG focuses on providing general guidance on conceptual issues (for example, the type of data to be gathered, the analysis to be performed, the endorsement of major human resource- related reports and the preparation/execution of major communication campaigns).

The question and the method

EHRO-N was established because of a perceived need for a central information source for the nuclear energy sector in the EU. A question that developed early in its formation was: Is the supply of nuclear human resource in the EU sufficient to cover the demand for this resource by the nuclear energy sector? The question can be broken down. The stakeholders that supply nuclear human resource are the education and training institutions themselves, as well as institutions. The stakeholders that demand nuclear human resource were stakeholders/companies active in the nuclear energy sector area. We differentiate among nine types (the figure in brackets shows the percentage of each type of company that responded to the survey):

1. Utilities or nuclear power plants (16%)

2. Nuclear facility vendors and other big suppliers (7%)

3. Fuel fabrication, enrichment, supply organisations (6%)

4. Waste management organizations /radioactive waste management and decommissioning organisations (12%)

5. Design, engineering, manufacturing, maintenance organisations (30%)

6. Consultancy (including project management and training (7%)

7. Regulatory Authorities and TSOs (5%)

8. R&D institutes (17%)

9. Universities and training organisations.

Throughout 2010 and in the first half of 2011 two questionnaires were sent to higher education institutions in EU-27 that offer nuclear-related degrees, and nuclear stakeholders active in the EU-27 nuclear energy labour market. The quantitative data received was quality-checked against a quality assurance procedure defined within the SAG of EHRO-N. It was also assessed against data available from other sources (such as IAEA data, national nuclear human resource reports, if available).

Statistical information from OECD, IAEA, World Nuclear Association, and Eurostat was also used to set the wider EU-27 skills context.

While applying the above methodology we encountered the following challenges:

  • The lists of either E&T organisations or companies might not be comprehensive; for example, many subcontractors operate in the nuclear energy sector
  • We chose to focus on the need especially for nuclear experts. The definition of a "nuclear expert" might have been differently understood from organisation to organisation
  • Not all organisations that were contacted were prepared to reveal their data on students/needs for nuclear experts. This made the estimation of missing data unavoidable
  • The benchmarking of the supply data proved to be challenging because of a lack of a national baseline. Thus, best possible estimates from on the basis of other available reports and figures were made
  • The estimations above were based on assumptions that might have been themselves limited. This makes some under-, or overestimating of the data unavoidable
  • Some organisations divided the data by stakeholder type; others did not
  • Many suppliers are active in more than one country of the EU-27, raising the possibility of double-counting. This limits to some extent the accuracy of data on a country level -- but not the overall data.

Results: supply side

Somewhat less than 190 higher education institutions received a questionnaire asking them about the:

1. Number of nuclear engineering students that graduated in 2009;

2. Number of students following nuclear subjects that graduated in 2009;

3. Number of nuclear engineering students that started with their studies in the school year of 2009/2010; and

4. Number of students following nuclear subjects that started their studies in the school year of 2009/2010.

Examples of nuclear-related studies covered by the above data include nuclear engineering, nuclear physics, nuclear chemistry, nuclear energy. The response rate of the higher education institutions contacted was above 90%.

The initial results showed that slightly less than 1800 nuclear engineering students and students following nuclear energy-related subjects graduated in the year 2009 on BSc, MSc, or PhD levels in the higher education institutions in EU-27. Around 2300 students started their nuclear engineering and nuclear energy-related studies in the year 2009/2010.

Some of the higher education institutions did not respond to the questionnaire. Furthermore, some of the received data needed to be benchmarked according to the quality-assured procedure defined by EHRO-N SAG. This means that some data needed to be re-assessed against the existing national data and/or the knowledge of relevant experts, some of which are also members of the EHRO-N SAG. After the benchmarking exercise the total number of nuclear engineering students/students following nuclear energy-related subjects that graduated in the year 2009 on BSc, MSc, or PhD levels was somewhat above 2800 (Figure 1).

Results: demand side

Of the 358 nuclear stakeholders contacted, 242 or nearly 70% responded. The 242 organisations that responded to the questionnaire had altogether 62,958 nuclear experts employed in 2010, the biggest share of which fell into the age group "between 45 and 55". Those nuclear stakeholders that did not respond to the EHRO-N questionnaire were estimated to have employed 14,647 experts in 2010 and to need 8,236 nuclear experts by 2020.

Thus, the total number of nuclear experts employed in the 358 nuclear organisations in the EU-27 in 2010 was 77,605 (62,958+14,647) (Figure 2). The highest share of nuclear experts employed in EU-27 was located in France, followed by the United Kingdom. The biggest share of experts fell into the age group "between 45 and 55".

The total need for nuclear experts by 2020 for the 358 nuclear organisations active in the EU-27 in 2010 was 38,900 (30,664+8,236). The highest share of nuclear experts needed by 2020 was again in France, followed by the United Kingdom.

Workforce profile

The total workforce in the EU-27 nuclear sector is some 500,000 people (source: Foratom). There are essentially three categories of competencies necessary to run a nuclear power station:

1. Nuclear experts: people with a specialised formal education in nuclear subjects (for example, nuclear engineering, radiochemistry, radiation protection, etc.)

2. "Nuclearised" staff: people with formal education and training in a relevant but non-nuclear area (such as mechanical, electrical, civil engineering, systems) who need to acquire knowledge of the nuclear environment in which they have to apply their competencies

3. Nuclear-aware staff: people requiring nuclear awareness to work in the industry (for example electricians, mechanics, and other craft and support personnel).

The French nuclear energy sector employs the biggest share of all nuclear experts in the EU-27. The need for specific profiles of employees for the French nuclear energy sector (Figure 4) was taken as the basis for a hypothetical breakdown by main profiles of employees in the nuclear energy sector for the EU-27 as a whole.

Thus, in the EU-27, the workforce in the nuclear energy sector, which in total is estimated at 500,000, is hypothetically divided like this: 16% (80,000) are nuclear experts (the analysis of the EHRO-N questionnaire arrived at an absolute number of some 77,000 staff in this category); 74% (370,000) are nuclearised staff (this category is again in itself divided into 38% technicians, 35% non-nuclear engineers and 27% other graduates); and 10% (50,000) are support and other employees (so called nuclear-aware employees).


On the supply side, the numerical data available from the above EHRO-N analysis was supplemented with statistical data, mainly from Eurostat, on the numbers of graduates in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), in the EU-27 (Figure 3). On the demand side, the numerical data was supplemented by 2007 statistics of employees belonging to the group of science and technology human resource (HRST), Figure 4.

There will be a total need for at least some 1,200,000 engineers for the whole EU-27 labour market by 2020 just to replace the retired engineers by that same year. The least need for engineers per year in the EU-27 as a whole is thus some 120,000 engineers. That means that around one-third of all engineering graduates in the EU-27 (assuming that their numbers stay at the level of some 340,000 every year as in 2009) are needed every year just to replace retired personnel.

With the help of the EHRO-N questionnaire we were able to see what would be the approximate future demand for nuclear experts by 2020 in the EU-27 by the nuclear energy sector: somewhat less than 40,000 people. In order to estimate the lowest future need for the nuclearised engineers, other graduates, and technicians by the nuclear energy sector in the EU-27, we assumed that the retirement rate is at least 25% (average retiring rate for graduated employed engineers in Europe in a given year).

Thus, the demand by 2020, in order to replace the retired nuclearised workforce, will be:

  • 35,150 technicians: (370,000*38%)*25%
  • 32,375 non-nuclear engineers: (370,000*35%)*25%, which represents about 3%: (32,375/1,204,088)*100 of all engineers needed because of retirement of engineers in the entire EU-27 labour force
  • 24,975 other graduates: (370,000*27%)*25%.

Surplus or deficit?

The supply of nuclear engineering students and students with a nuclear energy-related subject in their studies (between 1800 and 2800 in the EU-27 graduated in 2009) covers some 45%-70% of the demand for nuclear experts by the nuclear energy sector in the EU-27 (on average 4000 per year by 2020). This is true if one assumes that all the relevant graduates mentioned are looking for an employment in the nuclear energy sector. A worrying observation is that by 2020 nearly 50% of nuclear experts employed today will retire; the retirement rate for other engineers is much lower.

The demand for nuclear experts which is not fulfilled by the supply from the higher university institutions in the EU-27 is directed towards the other STEM graduates (for example, non-nuclear engineers, physical scientists, and so on). At first glance it seems that the number of STEM graduates could fulfill the needs of the nuclear energy sector, considering that these are nuclearised to a desired degree of expertise. But in order to make a more accurate judgment on this question, one has to take into account other energy sectors compete for these same STEM graduates. In addition, the retirement of the 'baby boomer' generation increases demand for STEM graduates to the extent that it reportedly exceeds supply; and the future does not seem much brighter.

The EU is facing three main challenges:

1) Attracting more students to undertake STEM studies

2) Large-scale retirements in the not-so-distant future

3) Low attractiveness to foreign talent

By contrast, the emerging renewable energy market is itself driving changes in skill needs. The estimated employment potential in the renewable energy sector in the EU-27 is some 1.3 million new jobs by 2020. As a comparison, the wind energy sector alone currently employs about 108,000 across the EU-27. The renewable energy sector needs engineers, consultants, auditors, quality controllers and installation and maintenance technicians.


We can conclude that the supply of nuclear engineering graduates does not sufficiently respond to the demand for them from the nuclear energy sector. As there is a (growing) demand for STEM graduates by various sectors across the European economy, nuclear energy stakeholders need to be aware of the wider context in which they operate. It becomes clear that only by joining forces can the energy sector adequately respond to the human resource and skills challenges. EHRO-N's lessons learned include:

There is a need to maintain an adequately skilled and competent workforce, and attract young students and talents in order to develop a flow of new recruits for long term sustainability. Policy decisions must anticipate these needs in order to sustain an effective workforce pipeline

There is a need for strong(er) interaction between nuclear energy stakeholders in the EU-27 as far as questions of nuclear human resource monitoring is concerned. Better co-operation between university and industry and between them and government is critical to both create and maintain education and training programmes as well as attract young people towards nuclear engineering

Regular monitoring of the supply/demand situation of nuclear human resource is needed in the EU-27 in order to have more accurate data and for trends

The increasing internationalisation of the civil nuclear supply chain and the enhanced mobility of students and personnel raises issues of mutual recognition of qualifications and skills. A commonly recognized job taxonomy could be developed between EU member states and main stakeholder in the nuclear value chain, being the basis for the development of a framework for competent workforce training, enabling mobility and retention of suitably qualified and experienced personnel.


Veronika Simonovska and Ulrik von Estorff, Joint Research Centre, Institute for Energy and Transport (IET), Westerduinweg 3, NL-1755-LE, Petten, the Netherlands,

This article is based on the 2012 report by the same authors, 'Putting into perspective the supply of and demand for nuclear experts by 2020 within the EU-27 nuclear energy sector', European Commission, Joint Research Centre. EUR 25291 EN

The authors wish to acknowledge the higher education institutions and nuclear stakeholders that responded to the EHRO-N questionnaire(s), and would also like to thank the EHRO-N Senior Advisor Group (SAG) members.

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