Speech: Nuclear jobs to help drive economic recovery

21 July 2020

In these challenging and increasingly nationalistic times, it is important that leading international organisations seek to overcome institutional barriers and work together to deliver change, Agneta Rising, World Nuclear Association director general, said today. Rising was speaking during an OECD-Nuclear Energy Agency webinar on its newly published Policy Brief, Creating high-value jobs in the post-COVID-19 recovery with nuclear power projects. Publication of the report coincided with World Nuclear Association’s latest technical position paper, Employment in the nuclear and wind electricity generating sectors.

(Image: WNN)

"From World Nuclear Association’s perspective, the NEA Policy Briefs emphasise four crucial points:

  • Firstly, that nuclear energy produces multiple benefits, and offers a solution to some of the challenges created by the pandemic;
  • Secondly, that nuclear power plants delivers better value for money to energy consumers, whilst also helping to ensure that society decarbonises on time and sustainably;
  • Thirdly, that energy security is essential for ensuring modern quality of life, and helping to unlock human potential around the world. Nuclear energy serves as a pillar of stability during uncertain times;
  • And fourthly, and most relevant to today’s discussion, that investing in nuclear infrastructure is proven to create a large number of high value and highly qualified jobs.

As we saw in the last NEA webinar, nuclear energy brings important economic benefits especially in the context of decarbonisation. The continued operation of today's nuclear plants is hands-down one of the least-cost options for generating electricity.

Nuclear new build is also a highly cost-effective option in many key growth markets. And with the publication of the new NEA report on how to reduce the costs of nuclear electricity, we know that nothing is preventing Western nuclear nations from also achieving these low costs, especially if they commit to series build and work to reduce the costs of financing. With recent new-build projects moving ahead, we see that these lessons have been internalised and that there is clear scope for cost improvement.

However, it is as part of global efforts to address climate change that the real economic value of nuclear energy becomes undeniable. As countries ratchet down the emissions target it becomes more and more costly to maintain a secure supply of energy, but by including some dispatchable low-carbon electricity sources in the mix these costs can be reduced greatly. Nuclear stands out in terms of its technical maturity, scalability and the potential to use it for a range of non-power applications.

The environmental benefits of nuclear energy are not limited to climate change. It is in fact truly ironic that nuclear energy currently finds itself sidelined in sustainable finance discussions when the evidence clearly shows that the technology has some of the lowest environmental impacts of any energy source - frequently lower than solar photovoltaics.

It is vital that nuclear energy is accepted into clean energy policy discourse and that appropriate frameworks are developed that unlock the financing needed for a clean energy transition.

The new report shows that most employment estimates in the energy sector are ‘point-in-time’, i.e. they provide a snapshot rather than a view over the entire plant lifetime. The Association's position paper uses existing studies to estimate employment in a ‘steady state’ for both nuclear and wind energy.

The French nuclear sector and US wind sector were chosen partly because of the availability of employment data for these countries, and partly because it is assumed that their supply chains are largely domestically located.

We studied the overall employment contours for a one-gigawatt nuclear facility over an 80-year period. The employment profile at the nuclear plant is much smoother, requiring on average fewer jobs during construction but also employing more during operation. Jobs in operations especially tend to be long term and will support workers who live in the communities near the plant.

The report looked at how many people are employed - both directly in construction and operation, but also indirectly through the wider supply chain - to generate 1000 terawatt hours per year within the two national industries. A striking fact was revealed: the nuclear industry provides about 25% more employment per unit of electricity in France than wind power does in the USA. We think this general conclusion holds true for most countries.

Not only does nuclear employ more people than wind, it creates more value in the wider economy. How can this this true?

Firstly, the average nuclear sector pay-rate tends to exceed those of other energy technologies by a significant margin. The report looks at pay trends for a range of US energy workers that show them earning an additional USD20,000 per year compared to competing energy technologies. Paying workers more means their family units tend to have more disposable income to spend on goods and services throughout the community and more widely.

Secondly, a fully-fledged established nuclear industry will generate value that is easily detectable at the macro-economic level. The report shows how the European nuclear industry contributes to economic activity in the region worth half a trillion euros each year. In addition to the jobs and high household incomes generated, public revenues generated through taxation reach a value of EUR124 billion, while the sector also generated a trade surplus of almost EUR20 billion.

These figures are for a largely mature industry where little new build is currently under way, but we can readily imagine just how much additional value would be created around the world if countries committed to accelerating the implementation of the 108 reactors which are already planned by governments, and ensuring the long-time operation of the 290 reactors that have been operational for 30+ years. As we hopefully head into the COVID recovery phase, this is a clear and urgent priority.

In summary, our research shows that:

  • Nuclear power provides more employment per unit of electricity than wind power. For example, about 461,000 full-time workers are needed to service and operate a nuclear fleet generating 1000 terawatt hours annually compared with 346,000 for a wind fleet generating the same amount of electricity;
  • These jobs will be better paid and of a better quality than any other in the energy sector. The nuclear industry acts as a jobs multiplier - every direct job in the nuclear industry sustains four other jobs;
  • Even despite this employment benefit, nuclear maintains an economic advantage over intermittent renewables for final energy supply in high renewables future as it does not require the same spending on system costs; and
  • Nuclear energy, as major infrastructure development, attracts invaluable investment that drives sustained long-term local and national economic growth.

Given all of this, we call on governments around the world to duly consider nuclear and its socio-economic, environmental and public health benefits in any energy transition plan, and enact policies to ensure the realisation of the many benefits of nuclear energy."

Agneta Rising