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Fukushima May Worsen Nuclear Skill Shortage, U.K. Watchdog Says

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Tepco Fukushima Plant
A handout photo from a screen capture shows workers checking temporary reactor pressure indicators on the north side of the first floor in the Unit 1 reactor building at Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power station in Fukushima, Japan, on Friday, June 3, 2011. Source: Tokyo Electric Power Co. via Bloomberg

July 5 (Bloomberg) -- Japan’s nuclear disaster may worsen a skills shortage in the nuclear industry as regulators look for people able to carry out detailed assessments of power plants, the U.K.’s chief inspector of atomic installations said.

“There is a question about the market hardening in terms of the people with the right skills,” said Mike Weightman, who led the International Atomic Energy Agency’s fact-finding team to the Fukushima plant in Japan. Regulators “have to have the resources to keep pace with that market.”

Governments around the world called for inspections of existing nuclear sites after a magnitude-9 earthquake and tsunami in March led to Japan’s worst atomic accident. Even as demand rises for competent regulators, who may need up to 10 years of experience to qualify, plant operators are seeking to replace retiring workers and prepare for new build programs.

China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection was struggling to hire people before Fukushima, Weightman said in an interview in Liverpool. China plans to construct more than 100 reactors by 2020. Other nations such as the U.A.E. and Vietnam are preparing to build their first atomic plants.

“It’s a crash program to get people up to competence and it’s not just about willing people, you’ve got to breed the culture,” said Tony Roulstone, who directs the University of Cambridge’s masters program in nuclear technology. “Countries are starting from scratch and you wonder where these people are going to come from.”

Trying Circumstances

The disaster in Japan has drawn attention to the need for people who are capable and trained to handle extreme situations, said Weightman, who visited Fukushima at the end of May.

“People sought to do the right thing in very trying circumstances,” he said. “They’ve cleared away a lot of the debris, but the amount of debris and destruction that was on the site, you just get a sense that the barriers that were in place were just swept aside.”

Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant north of Tokyo has been spewing radiation since an earthquake and tsunami on March 11 knocked out cooling systems and caused three of its six reactors to melt down. The disaster displaced 50,000 households and may cost the utility as much as 11 trillion yen ($140 billion) in compensation claims, according to Bank of America Corp.’s Merrill Lynch unit.

Clear Independence

Governments seeking to protect against a Fukushima-scale disaster need to ensure regulators are independent in practice and in law, Weightman said. “You have to have clear independence of the regulatory roles,” he said. “We’re in a pretty good position in Europe.”

Stress tests ordered by the European Commission will be carried out across Europe through the end of this year. China plans to finish safety checks of all its nuclear plants by October.

As operators consider plans to build reactors, they will need to consider the implications of having more than one reactor on a site, Weightman said. While modern designs have more robust containment buildings intended to limit problems at one reactor spreading to adjacent ones, people need to be capable of handling the situation, he said.

Simultaneous Incidents

“Do you have enough staff on site to deal with a simultaneous number of incidents?” he said. “When you only have a normal shift of people, have you thought about what people you need to respond to an incident that can affect all that plant?”

The nuclear sector was already struggling to recruit people prior to Fukushima, Roulstone said. Many of those working for nuclear operators now were employed in the 1980s and are nearing retirement, he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kari Lundgren in London at klundgren2@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Will Kennedy at wkennedy3@bloomberg.net.

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