Viewpoint: The impact of COVID-19 on nuclear jobs

27 April 2020

The effect on jobs globally as a result of COVID-19 has been uneven to say the least. While some industries and organisations are booming and hiring thousands, others are being hit hard. The nuclear industry employment situation could be best described as behaving like a nuclear power plant - continuing reliably without creating much attention while competently adapting to the needs of the current situation, writes Callum Thomas, CEO of Thomas Thor Associates.

Callum Thomas (Image: Thomas Thor Associates)

One of the benefits of safety being at the heart of the culture in the nuclear industry is that consideration for the health and well-being of workers is already the primary objective. Nuclear sites - operating, under construction or in decommissioning - have long established emergency preparedness procedures and continue to run smoothly. The main change has been a rapid transition to home working for the workforce, for all those other than essential workers on operating sites and construction projects. This has presented the same challenges that other industries have faced around providing the necessary equipment, access and security for people to work effectively from home. Non-essential projects and workstreams have been slowed down or put on hold in order to minimise unnecessary social contact. Although the number of permanent lay-offs is limited in the short-term, there are a significant number of workers from operating and construction sites deemed non-essential that are not doing their usual jobs right now.

The nuclear industry has not been at the forefront of remote working practices up until now but has adapted quickly in recent weeks. Every day I am speaking with people across the industry worldwide who are pleasantly surprised about how effectively they can carry out their jobs remotely. The other major feedback theme is around efficiency. The evaluation of activities to ascertain whether they are essential and the review of working practices to ensure social distancing rules are met have led to significant efficiency gains. Construction sites are continuing to meet milestones with fewer workers on site, and the number of meetings we are all physically attending has been drastically curtailed (although we are rapidly replacing them with video calls!).

The result is that there have not been large-scale reductions in workforce across the nuclear industry, and there are few industries in a better position to adapt to the new ‘social-distancing’’ workplace environment that will become the norm as we come out of this crisis. While this current picture is one of adaption and steadiness, the view of the future is far more radical.

New global outlook

Choruses of governments are basing COVID-19 policy and action on the advice of leading scientists. Imagine if our global response to climate change was formed on the same basis. Scientists are already loudly warning about the consequences of not acting now to slow down climate change. Maybe the COVID-19 crisis will mark a turning point in how seriously the scientific evidence will define and prioritise policy and action. We have an opportunity to apply the value of hindsight gained from the COVID-19 crisis to the climate change crisis, which has potentially far greater consequences but is playing out at a speed that seems to prevent us from seeing it as an emergency.

There are four priorities that will be paramount for countries after the COVID-19 crisis - economic recovery, job creation, energy security and addressing climate change. Nuclear energy provides a solution to all four of these priorities.

Creating jobs to boost the economy and build essential national infrastructure in the form of nuclear power plants and used fuel solutions that support energy security and reduce carbon emissions would contribute perfectly to the solution. It will take a while for this action to filter down to large-scale job creation.

Energy policy changes and unlocking of funding sources for new nuclear plants and used fuel facilities in the short term will lead to some new jobs being created in the coming years for work related to modernisation and plant life extension, and then on a larger scale over the next 5-10 years as new nuclear facilities start to be built. These will be highly skilled jobs delivering long-term projects and supporting facilities with long lifetimes, creating a competent workforce that will bring down the cost of future construction of new nuclear.

Commitment to invest in nuclear from governments and developers will provide the signal for investment throughout the supply chain in construction and manufacturing capabilities as well as skills development. This will lead to more high-value jobs, although the supply chain will need to see really firm commitment to give them the confidence to invest.

Job security

An immediate action for the nuclear industry that will have long-term workforce benefits is to collectively work on the employer brand of the industry. Never has job security been so important in the eyes of workers. The nuclear industry is offering long-term career opportunities working with cutting edge technologies to create solutions to climate change and environmental remediation. It also has a primary focus on safety and well-being, an extraordinarily collaborative and supportive working environment and an increasing culture of flexible working. This is a narrative that has not yet made it to the mainstream, but it could with the right communication effort.

Creating a workforce that is representative of the communities in which the nuclear industry serves is a core objective and organisations such as Women in Nuclear and EqualEngineers are doing great work to support this. We are increasingly appreciating the benefits of diversity in our teams and organisations, not just in the form of characteristics such as gender, age and ethnicity, but also cognitive diversity and diversity of experience. What better way to provide a boost to diversity to the global nuclear workforce than to bring people from different industries?

Hand picking individuals who have been responsible for on-time and on-budget delivery of projects, or the safe and efficient operation of complex facilities, will be essential if we are to achieve the Harmony Goal of 25% electricity generated by nuclear by 2050 and develop effective used fuel solutions. We are also seeing the effects of the stagnation of the nuclear industry in many parts of the world in the 1990s, which has led to gaps in succession for senior leadership roles. These gaps can be filled by bringing people from outside the sector.


The short-term effects of the COVID-19 crisis have not led to significant permanent job losses and have stimulated some positive responses from the nuclear industry, such as an accelerated transition to remote and flexible working and efficiency improvements at sites kept running by essential workers. The longer-term effects could well be radical. Governments could work out that Economic recovery + Job creation + Energy security + Climate change action = Investment in nuclear power plants and used fuel facilities. If the nuclear industry can effectively engage with stakeholders in the clean energy future to communicate the career opportunities available, then the workforce will grow and diversify while solving some of the world's biggest challenges.

Callum Thomas