As nuclear technology plays a significant role in energy generation, efforts to ensure the long-term sustainability of nuclear safety are crucial. Recently, young people in many countries have been turning away from careers in nuclear. With nuclear safety relying on a robust transfer of knowledge to new generations, how can the international nuclear community attract young people to careers in nuclear in general and nuclear safety in particular?
“To adapt to a changing world, we have to infuse the nuclear sector with new energy and new perspectives, and ensure it is attracting the best and brightest,” said President of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) Rumina Velshi. Velshi understands that national regulators such as the CNSC have a duty to attract and retain young people to nuclear careers in order to ensure the highest levels of safety. “When we exclude — or fail to open ourselves up to — part of the population, we fall short of our potential,” said Velshi.
Diversity makes the entire nuclear sector more flexible and dynamic, and, at the end of the day, more successful.
John Lindberg, PhD student, King’s College London and Imperial College London, United Kingdom
Young people and nuclear
A hiatus in the building of new rectors, particularly in the West, coupled with political discourse against nuclear energy, has led to a global decline in the number of young people studying towards careers in the sector. In the 2021 Global Energy Talent Index report, which surveyed people working in the nuclear sector across 166 countries, 29 per cent of respondents were between the ages of 18 and 34, compared to 36 per cent who were over 55.
John Lindberg has spent the past few years working towards a PhD on the long-term impact of the negative perception of nuclear power at King’s College London and Imperial College London in the United Kingdom. “The problem is that some people perceive nuclear technologies as something of the past and something to be feared,” he said.
This is highlighted in a recent survey by the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, which found that, among young people, there is a general scepticism towards nuclear power and an unawareness of its role as a low carbon source of energy. According to the survey, young people are concerned about the safety of nuclear energy, especially when it comes to the management of nuclear waste.
Lindberg argues for proper education in this area. “It is crucial that the international community and the global industry work together to engage with students to not only help dispel these notions, but, more importantly, help build well-deserved enthusiasm for nuclear technologies, and the many career opportunities that the sector offers.”
Changing youth perceptions
Jawaher Al-Tuweity is a PhD candidate researcher in ionization radiation metrology, medical physics and radiation protection at the Ibn Tofail University in Kenitra, Morocco. As general coordinator of the Yemeni Forum for Scientific Research and Sustainable Development and leader of the Yemeni Young Professional Network (YYPN), she has worked for years to build up opportunities for young people in nuclear technologies in her native Yemen.
“It is essential that the industry cooperate with the education sector to share information and opportunities for young people to discover their scientific talents and fields of interest and to change their perception of nuclear,” Al-Tuweity said. The issue for Yemen, and many other developing countries, is one of inequality. “The efforts being made are not sufficient and not sustainable, as they are not benefiting developed and developing countries equally.”
Diversifying the nuclear workforce drives innovation in the sector as a whole, Al-Tuweity added. Some global efforts have been made to level the playing field. The IAEA Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowship Programme, for instance, targets financial support to women studying nuclear subjects at the graduate level. Fellowships have so far been awarded to 100 students from 71 countries.
PhD student Lindberg also advocates for the diversification of the industry. “Diversity makes the entire nuclear sector more flexible and dynamic, and, at the end of the day, more successful. It helps us to avoid the well-known dangers of groupthink and of getting stuck in ‘echo chambers’, where groups only hear the same perspectives and opinions repeatedly,” he said. “Public engagement is one area, where additional diversity of thought is crucial, as it would encourage new and innovative methods for engaging with the public on the benefits of nuclear energy.”
To avoid repeating safety issues from the past, companies can invest now to ensure the proper transfer of knowledge. Networking and mentorship programmes play a dual role in transferring knowledge and offering the career progression young people want when entering a job.
The IAEA’s International Conference on Radiation Safety: Improving Radiation Protection in Practice, held in November 2020, included a Professional Development Programme that offered interactions between nuclear industry veterans and young people to bring new ideas to the table and give momentum to and ensure the sustainability of the industry.
The CNSC also uses the diverse range of careers available within nuclear safety as a way to entice young people. “We are expanding efforts to talk about nuclear safety beyond audiences that are nuclear engineering students or communities with a nuclear facility,” Velshi said. “I recently gave a talk to graduate students in geotechnical engineering and there was a major interest among students about public trust and nuclear, and their role as engineers in this area.”
Climate change and the digital revolution
Across the world, young people have driven the protests for action against climate change, the biggest global challenge faced today. These young people are educated about climate-related issues and are eager to participate in the global discussion about the future of the planet. Climate change mitigation remains a key driver for maintaining and expanding the use of nuclear power, and the latest IAEA annual projections show that global nuclear electrical capacity could double by 2050. This is an opportunity for the nuclear industry and the international community to present nuclear and nuclear safety as an exciting and relevant career choice in a growing and innovative field.
With a comprehensive education in nuclear, an understanding of its benefits for people and the environment, career progression opportunities and the comprehensive diversification of its workforce, nuclear can become a coveted career.
For Velshi and the CNSC, the digital revolution in nuclear safety represents an opportunity for young people. “Today we are at the start of the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ — or the digital revolution. This new chapter in human development, driven primarily by scientific and technology advances is evolving at an exponential rate. This applies to the nuclear sector as well. We know that the nuclear industry is looking to find innovative solutions, from robotics to quantum computing, to using artificial intelligence to address existing challenges. A career in nuclear safety offers you the possibility to be at the forefront of this revolution.”