Developing manpower is essential for a nuclear future

Developing countries need to plan for specialised training to operate nuclear facilities Copyright: flickr hige-daruma

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Nuclear power can benefit developing countries but requires long-term planning and an educated workforce, says Michael J. Mangala.

Many countries insist that nuclear power can make a major contribution to meeting energy needs and sustaining development in the twenty-first century. Developing countries, in particular, have much to gain from the technology.

It can be an opportunity to build industrial, technological and educational infrastructure, acquire new technological know-how, develop highly qualified manpower, and raise the national standard of industry.

And the benefits can extend further — to creating employment opportunities, boosting the economy, and increasing a country’s self-sufficiency.

Efforts to develop a nuclear power programme are constrained by economic, financial, technical and political factors. Developing countries face a series of challenges, including waste management, minimising proliferation risk, and ensuring the security of nuclear plants and materials — all of which don’t easily attract potential investors or opportunities for technical support.

A trained and skilled workforce is essential for any sustainable nuclear energy programme. But for most developing countries, manpower is a key limiting factor in the development and transfer of nuclear technologies — education and training take time, effort and money.

Governments that intend to invest in nuclear energy must plan in advance for comprehensive manpower-development programmes.

Planning ahead

There are three essential steps that any country must take to introduce nuclear power into its energy mix: energy planning, infrastructure development, and deployment.

The necessary infrastructure includes the institutional framework and legislation within which nuclear facilities operate, as well as a suite of capabilities — industrial, economic, social, technical and scientific — to enable the secure and efficient development, management and operation of nuclear facilities.

Before embarking on a nuclear power project, a developing country must determine its manpower needs and evaluate the existing organisational, educational and industrial capabilities for meeting these needs.

For example, one of Kenya’s long-term objectives, according to its Vision 2030 programme, is to be industrialised by the year 2020. This will require a qualified human resource base and the commitment to necessary infrastructure, such as programmes that offer access to education for all.

A successful nuclear power programme should be designed with several objectives in mind. It must improve both the extent and the reliability of participation of local engineering industries; enable the transfer of technology through industrial partnerships; import advanced technology and expertise; and intensify its efforts for research and development (R&D).

This could be achieved by introducing policies that promote technology-oriented, applied R&D — by establishing and strengthening nuclear R&D in national institutions with adequate staffing, funding, facilities, programmes and autonomy, for example. Such centres could perform services, such as advising local industry on the introduction of new technologies, testing materials and equipment, or issuing certificates for compliance with approved standards.

Additional policies could promote an enabling environment for industrial development, motivate and retain a skilled labour force, and ensure long-term political stability and good governance.

Education policies can also play a part by introducing nuclear science and technology-oriented curricula in national universities, for example, and promoting the establishment of nuclear training institutions to meet the country’s manpower-development requirements. And they can encourage students to choose careers in science and technology.

Overcoming obstacles

Manpower is a key limiting factor for developing countries, so those that pursue nuclear power should endeavour to provide basic scientific training and seek help for specialised training.

Bilateral agreements are one way of securing specialised training, but such formal agreements may not even be needed to take advantage of existing opportunities.

International organisations also provide assistance. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has published a guidance documentaddressed mainly to developing countries that do not yet have nuclear power plants in operation or under construction but are seriously considering the option. [1]

As well as providing direct assistance, the IAEA publishes a range of technical documents that distil much of the world’s accumulated expertise on all dimensions of nuclear power, including the development of human resources.

There is also growing interest in regional cooperation and interconnectivity grids, including shared facilities, education and training programmes, for example among East African, Central African and Southern African countries. In future, these networks could be extended to include nuclear safety.

But in much of the developing world, developing the necessary manpower for nuclear energy requires educational institutions to overcome various obstacles that undermine support for it.

A negative public perception of nuclear technologies is one obstacle, based on such matters as proliferation risks, the atomic bombing of Japan in 1945, nuclear accidents, and the safety of radioactive waste. There is also a question of public trust in the competence of institutions and officials tasked with implementing the technology.

Public support and negative perceptions vary from country to country. Only recently has support for nuclear power increased, largely due to concerns over energy security and climate change mitigation.

Nuclear power plants are relatively expensive to build, and this must be factored into a country’s long-term plans for sustainable development through the appropriate mechanisms to ensure that a budget is allocated for implementation. But they are relatively inexpensive to operate once the infrastructure is in place.

The development of viable science and technology capabilities to harness nuclear energy is a long-term process that can take years or even decades, depending on the level of a country’s existing scientific and technological infrastructure.

Michael J. Mangala is a lecturer at the Institute of Nuclear Science and Technology at the University of Nairobi, Kenya.

This article is part of a Spotlight on Nuclear power after Fukushima.