Ageing workforce

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The impending retirement of a significant proportion of the knowledgeable workforce resulting in a significant reduction in the organization's knowledge base


The aging workforce refers to the rise in the median age of the workforce. It is projected that by the year 2020, about 25% of the U.S. workforce will be composed of older workers (ages 55 and over). While many factors contribute to the aging workforce, the Post-World War II baby boom created an usually large birth cohort, resulting in a large aging population today. This phenomena has many short-term and long-term implications, affecting many areas, including the global economy, society and public health.

Due to the aging workforce, NPP, member states, regulators, R&D and support organizations will be replacing their workforce. This article highlights some of those gaps between existing workforce and those needed for replacement and new build NPP.


The anticipated growth in nuclear generating capacity coupled with recent and continuing life extension of existing plants create an unprecedented demand for a unique workforce resource: the individual qualified in all of the traditional nuclear power support disciplines. However, in sustaining and advancing the nuclear industry, emphasis and attention are also being placed on the research and development of next generation reactor types and fuel cycle management options and technologies. These efforts will further draw on the same workforce needed to operate and maintain current plants. To complicate an already challenging workforce picture, the construction and licensing of new nuclear energy production facilities will further negatively affect the available workforce. Also within the USA, other industry sectors will be competing for the same college and technical graduates. There are two other complicating factors. The USA faces the issue of a ‘greying’ workforce where literally half the current workers will be eligible to retire within the next five years. Secondly, the lead time required to produce an individual capable of safely operating the complex nuclear systems and technologies may exceed the time frame available until substantial retirement of the existing workforce begins.

There are global dynamics affecting this workforce picture, as well. The USA has for many years been able to bring in workers from other countries attracted by the technical opportunities available. However, as other countries develop their own high technology infrastructure (not just in the energy sector), opportunities abound for those potential migrants to remain and work in their own country. This is having a significant impact on the USA’s capacity to attract technical talent to the nuclear industry. As new facilities are constructed and other necessary nuclear infrastructure and technology begin to emerge, the capability to attract new talent and have the requisite knowledge resources to train them will impact the capability to bring new facilities and support activities into operation in a timely manner to keep pace with energy demand.

It is well recognized that many NPP operators face a challenge with the loss of experienced workers, knowledge and skills they possess. Often this knowledge is undocumented and the skills require years of training and experience. This loss may be caused by a variety of factors including: the retirements of long-term employees, internal transfers and promotions, or resignation where employees leave the nuclear industry. Aging workforce in developed and developing countries has the similar trends, the situation become more and more critical due to loss of the key experts not only from nuclear sector but also from traditional engineering fields like welding, mechanics, chemistry, construction, electric, I&C, etc..

FIG. 1. Estimate of operating personnel needed for NPP in USA.

A recent study by a Los Alamos National Laboratory team (Li et al., 2009) simulated human resource development needs for several scenarios in the Russian Federation, European Union and the United States. Figure 1 shows the magnitude of the prospective demand for operations personnel (i.e. operating staff retained for plant operations following the construction phase) for the United States case where additional plants are built to retain market share. Starting from the 56 000 United States workforce (as of 2006), the graph shows separately staff needs to replace retiring personnel and to cater for additional capacity, indicating a demand, by 2030, of approximately 19 000 new positions and a total of 63 000 new hires (19 000 + 44 000 to replace retiring employees). The main outcome from this analysis is that there will be a large need for education and training of new employees.

At the same time nuclear education will play an important role for the young engineer’s development. Amount of newcomers needed to cover workforce demand tremendous. But the problem of aging high qualified academic staff even more crucial and retention and transfer of scientific knowledge is no less challengeable.

In general, the demand for nuclear knowledge and skills set against a generally aging workforce implies that the nuclear industry has to take a more formal approach then in recent years to managing its human assets including developing strategies and programmes to capture, retain, and transfer nuclear knowledge and skills.

Unlike the situations of the utilities and R&D organizations regulatory personnel requires additional set of knowledge. These include interpersonal, legal basis, and others as outlined by IAEA TECDOC 1254. Regulatory body personnel usually have high level of job security. In other words, regulatory organizations usually have low personnel turn over. For this reason, the management of the regulatory body usually doesn’t see the risk of losing manpower/knowledge as an imminent challenge. By the time that the danger becomes evident, it is usually too late because the competency needed for the regulatory works cannot simply obtained from formal education systems

The original problem of the ageing workforce presents itself in a different light: the generation change is partly accomplished in most of the nuclear organizations. The impact of KM principles and ideas in solving the generation problem has been strong: it is fully justifiable to claim that KM has had beneficial effects in transferring knowledge between generations and mitigating or avoiding the adverse effects of the generation gap.

More than a decade after the first initiatives in managing nuclear knowledge, the original problem of the ageing workforce presents itself in a different light: the generation change is partly accomplished in most of the nuclear organizations. The last years have witnessed a pronounced turnaround of workforce, with peaks of 15–25% of annual retirements and replacements in some organizations. However, even if less dramatic, the need of to retain, transfer and further develop knowledge in a sustainable way will be a constant concern as a turnaround of staff will always occur.

Which impact did nuclear KM have in this period of change? Before answering this question, an aspect has to be addressed which should help to clarify the position of KM in many nuclear organizations: most of the organizations in the nuclear field have always been knowledge-based organizations. Well before the term ‘knowledge management’ had been coined, these organizations were dealing with many aspects of transferring, sharing and applying knowledge without referring to them explicitly as KM. With respect to ageing workforce, this implies that the challenge is being dealt with mainly by human resource management. Many activities directed at alleviating the effects of the generation gap do not carry explicitly the KM label.

Irrespective of the denotation however, the impact of KM principles and ideas has been strong, affecting not only organizations but also national and supranational strategies and networks. Most organizations have formally or informally adopted KM methods such as knowledge loss risk assessment, exit interviews, mentoring, debriefing, lessons learned databases. As new staff with no specific nuclear background had to be recruited due to the lack of academic educational offerings, extending internal education and training has often proved necessary. On national levels, nuclear education has been enhanced in most countries with operating nuclear power plants after a period of decline. On the international level, extensive KM programmes have been carried out; supranational organizations such as ANENT, ENEN or WNU have extended their activities to fill the educational gap.

In summary, it is fully justifiable to claim that KM has had beneficial effects in transferring knowledge between generations and mitigating or avoiding the adverse effects of the generation gap.


  • [1] INTERNATIONAL ATOMIC ENERGY AGENCY, Managing Nuclear Knowledge: Strategies and Human Resource Development. Summary of an international conference, 7–10 September 2004, Saclay, France, IAEA Proceedings Series; STI/PUB/1235, ISBN 92-0-110005-1; IAEA, Vienna (2006).
  • [2] INTERNATIONAL ATOMIC ENERGY AGENCY, The Management System for Facilities and Activities, IAEA Safety Standards Series No. GS-R-3, IAEA, Vienna (2006). INTERNATIONAL ATOMIC ENERGY Agency, Workforce Planning For New Nuclear Power Programmes, Nuclear Energy Series, No. NG-T-6.2, IAEA, Vienna (2011).
  • [3] INTERNATIONAL ATOMIC ENERGY AGENCY, Application of the Management System for Facilities and Activities, Safety Standards Series No. GS-G-3.1, IAEA, Vienna (2006).
  • [4] INTERNATIONAL ATOMIC ENERGY AGENCY, Knowledge Management for Nuclear Industry Operating Organizations, IAEA TECDOC 1510, IAEA, Vienna (2006).
  • [5] INTERNATIONAL ATOMIC ENERGY AGENCY, Managing Nuclear Knowledge IAEA Proceedings, STI/PUB/1266, ISSN: 0074-1884, IAEA, Vienna (2006).
  • [6] INTERNATIONAL ATOMIC ENERGY AGENCY, The nuclear power industry’s ageing workforce: transfer of knowledge to the next generation, IAEA TECDOC 1399, IAEA, Vienna (2004).
  • [7] INTERNATIONAL ATOMIC ENERGY AGENCY, Risk Management of Knowledge Loss in Nuclear Industry Organizations, STI/PUB/1248, IAEA, Vienna (2006).

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