By Benjamin Mallet
PARIS (Reuters) - French power giant EDF is looking to recruit a new generation of welders, pipe-fitters and boiler makers to fix its ageing nuclear reactors and build more of them, as Europe's energy crisis rekindles the allure of atomic power.
The problem is that in France such skilled workers are in short supply. So much so that EDF, which has a reputation for delays and cost overruns in building nuclear plants, has had to fly in around 100 of them from the United States and Canada, it said this month.
The utility, which is in the process of being fully nationalised, is racing against time to ensure its nuclear fleet can run at full capacity for the depths of winter. It has already seen its electricity output this year drop to a 30-year low due to a record number of outages.
It's not just a matter of keeping households in France and other European countries warm in the coldest months: lower output this year is projected to wipe 32 billion euros ($33 billion) off the company's core 2022 earnings, jeopardizing its financial stability.
With EDF on the hook to build at least six new generation reactors over the next 25 years, at a total investment of some 52 billion euros, the group is hurriedly ramping up a recruitment drive across France.
EDF co-financed the opening of a training centre for welders in Normandy - the Haute Ecole de formation en soudage (Hefais) - last month, with an intake of around 40 students this year, expected to rise to 200 from 2023.
That, however, is a drop in the ocean. EDF estimates that France's nuclear industry needs to recruit between 10,000 and 15,000 workers a year over the next seven years.
EDF alone must find 3,000 new workers a year over that time - or 15% of the workforce currently deployed at its nuclear plants - up from 2,500 in the 2019-2022 period.
It wants to hire 1,000 welders by 2030, double the number it employs today.
"These are pretty ambitious targets," said Clement Bouilloux, manager for France at energy consultancy EnAppSys, noting that the scale of the country's plans for new reactors could make it challenging to recruit the right workforce.
"We have not had a construction drive like that in nuclear since the 1970s."
France, like other Western countries, has long suffered a skills mismatch. Despite relatively high unemployment, France's manufacturing, construction, engineering and IT industries complain they can't get the workers they need.
The causes range from an education system less focused on practical skills to a perception of industry as "dirty" and a dead-end for careers.
In Penly, the Normandy site chosen for the first two new reactors, EDF is seeking to lure workers ahead of the scheduled start of construction in 2024. The project is expected to take 12 years.
A framework agreement was signed with unions on Nov. 8 to entice an initial batch of 70 skilled workers to move to Penly next year, before construction begins in earnest.
The agreement, seen by Reuters, includes a disturbance allowance equal to two months of salary to change residence, a "discovery pack" to help workers familiarise themselves with the town and its surroundings, a "mobility pack" of 9,000 to 11,250 euros per worker - to help find accommodation and a job for spouses - and other benefits to cover childcare and schooling.
Industry sources said the terms were quite generous by EDF's standards.
"On a building site like that one, we want to attract but also retain employees for a long period as the project will last for a while," Patrice Risch, EDF's head of employment, told Reuters.
France's industrial sector provides only 18% of private sector jobs, down from 26% two decades ago. Meanwhile, employment in services - from hotels to finance - has been growing steadily.
In construction, plans for the new nuclear plants will have to compete for workers building other big infrastructure projects ranging from new trainlines around Paris to a tunnel through the Alps to Italy.
Jean-Bernard Lévy, who was replaced on Nov. 23 as EDF chief executive, blamed the lack of specialised staff for much of the company's difficulties in quickly fixing its reactors.
LONG TRAINING, DIFFICULT JOB
Workers repairing plants affected by the corrosion issues - which first emerged a year ago - are required to operate in a part of the reactor where radiation is high, so they can only spend a limited amount of time in it.
Because of the challenges of the job, a standard welder needs up to three years of extra training to work in the nuclear sector, people employed in the industry say.
"To be a very good welder, you have to be born to be one. These people work with molten metal at 1,500 degrees Celsius, and sometimes have to stand upside down," said one welder in the nuclear industry, who asked not to be identified.
"You start with 500 would-be welders, and five years later you may have only five who are up to scratch."
To speed up the repairs, EDF drafted in 600 specialised workers, including around 100 welders and pipe-fitters from Canada and from U.S. nuclear plant maker Westinghouse Electric Company.
Unions and industry officials also blame the French government for what they say was a U-turn on nuclear. Before the war in Ukraine, successive administrations sought to reduce France's reliance on nuclear energy, not build new reactors, they say.
For a long time, France was Europe's nuclear energy champion - and its biggest electricity exporter. A wave of plant constructions between the 1970s and the 1990s gave the country the 56 reactors still standing today, before political and public sentiment began to waver.
Opposition from environmental groups and the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan made investing in nuclear reactors a less popular choice even in a country that still derives 70% of its electricity mix from atomic energy.
President Emmanuel Macron was elected for his first term in 2017 on a pledge to lessen France's dependence on nuclear over the long-term. This year, however, he announced the construction of new reactors, as the war in Ukraine and the push for low carbon energy production make nuclear attractive again.
"We'd been told for years: please, prepare yourselves to shut reactors," Lévy said at a conference in August.
"Clearly, we didn't hire people to build...reactors, we hired people to dismantle them," he said, noting that the government's 2019-2023 energy policy roadmap envisaged the shutdown of 12 reactors by 2035.
Now that the tide has turned in favour of nuclear, Luc Rémont, EDF's new CEO, told parliament last month that having the "sharpest skills across the nuclear supply chain is crucial to increasing production levels."
($1 = 0.9620 euros)
(additional reporting by Leigh Thomas, writing by Silvia Aloisi; Editing by Daniel Flynn)