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China Nuclear Human Capital: Where to Find the Staff ?


China is facing a major dilemma in finding the skilled human resources needed for safe nuclear expansion. To accomplish its goals, China needs to train labor to build the plants to a proper standard, educate engineers in plant design, train operators to run the many plants it has planned and staff its regulatory agencies with qualified nuclear engineers and other experts. All nuclear companies operating in China, local as well as foreign, know that finding a qualified labor force is their most difficult challenge.

Enrollment in nuclear sciences and engineering programs at universities declined steadily and significantly in the 1990s. Science and engineering were traditionally the favorite fields for university students, while the social sciences were shunned because of the political risk — it was much easier to get into trouble with the Party and the government if one was a social scientist, a lawyer or a journalist rather than a scientist or an engineer.

But economic reforms opened up opportunities for students in finance, accounting, management, law and other social sciences. In addition, most university students enrolled in the 1990s onwards were only children, and few wanted to work in remote regions under the harsh conditions associated with the nuclear sector because China’s nuclear weapons programs were almost all located in interior deserts. To make up for the shortage of qualified university graduates, the nuclear industry increased its investment in in-house or joint training programs with universities.

The foreign companies AECL and EDF in China sent a substantial number of Chinese to Canada, France and other developed countries for training, but this was far from sufficient to meet demand. According to an estimate by CGNPC, between 2008 and 2013, it would need 13,000 trained nuclear engineers, scientists and technicians — far less than universities would be able to provide. This manpower shortage is not limited only to construction, operation and management of nuclear power plants. It is also a major problem for regulation. The National Nuclear Safety Administration, as of early 2012, had only 300 people, in comparison with the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which has a $1 billion budget and 4,000 employees in five major locations. After the Fukushima accident, the State Council quickly promised to expand NNSA from 300 to 1,200 positions. The question is where to find qualified people.