GLOBAL: Risk of shortage of nuclear engineers

The world is facing a shortage of nuclear specialists because of a lack of training programmes and students to replace those about to retire, according to Nobel Peace Prize holder and former director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Dr Mohamed ElBaradei.

"Soon a generation of nuclear engineers and scientists will retire. There are very few graduate training programmes left in the world today...not enough to produce those nuclear specialists needed to keep the almost 500 nuclear reactors running," warned ElBaradei while receiving the international Compostela prize in Santiago de Compostela, Spain.

The Compostela Prize, awarded the week before last to ElBaradei and other recipients from the fields of science, culture and politics, is an annual award presented jointly by the regional ministry of the Galician government for education and university development, and Grupo Compostela, a network of 72 collaborating universities in 22 countries.

Past prize-holders include author and former president of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic, Václav Havel, Dutch author Cees Nooteboom, and Carla Del Ponti, previously chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

ElBaradei was awarded the prize in acknowledgement of his long diplomatic career in defence of peace and multicultural understanding.

In his acceptance speech on the future of nuclear energy, he said: "There are at present 437 nuclear power reactors in operation in the world, and some 30 countries use nuclear energy produced by these. Another 55 reactors are under construction, the highest number since 1992.

"There is, however, also more reason for optimism than for a long time, since United States President Barack Obama has declared that work on the reduction of armed nuclear warheads is high on his list of priorities. It is also useful that former Nobel Peace Prize recipient and political scientist Henry Kissinger and others who earlier were strongly in favour of nuclear armament now have published support for Obama's work."

To a packed auditorium ElBaradei gave an account of the relationship between production of nuclear energy and of warheads for military purposes.

"There are still 23,000 nuclear armed warheads in the world, most of them in high alarm state. There is an ever-present risk that several other countries will pursue the military road to nuclear arms, and there are several nightmare scenarios of terrorist groups getting hold of nuclear material that can be used to harm civilised society," he said.

"Attention should, however, be given to the global shortage of nuclear engineers, since those scarce study programmes that exist are not attracting a sufficient number of students. When nuclear power plants are on the increase and the [call for] substitution of those already working is becoming ever more present, the need for specialists is very strong."

"Some countries have large plans for expansion, such as India and China," said ElBaradei, "and these countries are establishing training programmes for much-needed scientists to operate the plants. Not long ago when I visited Chennai in India I met 10 United Kingdom nuclear engineers who were visiting to have their specialist training updated. I doubt countries in Europe want to be dependent on countries in the east to provide them with nuclear scientists in the future."

ElBaradei added: "I therefore urge the member institutions of the Compostela group to work for the reintroduction of nuclear energy training programmes among their curricula. Such candidates will have a golden opportunity to find attractive working positions in the years to come."

Even if countries such as Germany and France had expressed interest in becoming less dependent on nuclear energy in the future, the substitution of nuclear energy-producing units with more environmentally friendly technology would not happen overnight, concluded ElBaradei.