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Nuclear engineers ditching Japan for a bigger paycheck

Although Japan is reputed to be one of the most technologically advanced nations in nuclear power generation, it now faces a serious “brain drain” as some of its highly experienced nuclear engineers are lured to work in other countries for much better remuneration than they could hope to receive at home.

On June 21, Hitachi Ltd., a Japanese industrial giant, won a ¥400 billion contract to construct a nuclear power station in Lithuania, on the heels of a similar deal by a consortium of Hitachi, Toshiba Corp. and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. to build two nuclear power stations in Vietnam.

In Japan, public opinion has been increasingly against nuclear power generation since the March 11, 2011, accidents at Tokyo Electric Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

But Japan is one of the few countries that have accumulated the technology and knowledge needed for a wide range of things related to nuclear power plants, ranging from planning, designs, manufacturing and operation to maintenance and inspection of nuclear power plants. No corporations other than the Japanese trio of Hitachi, Mitsubishi and Toshiba have the expertise to do these things on their own.

One government official has lamented, however, that there has been a serious brain drain of nuclear engineers from Japan. Indeed, he says, huge sums of money are being offered to lure Tepco nuclear engineers to countries like South Korea and China, which are trying to compete with Japan as exporters of nuclear power equipment, and Abu Dhabi of the United Arab Emirates, which is intent on financing the introduction of nuclear power with the oil money it has accumulated.

“I have been told that annual remuneration being offered by those countries to Japanese engineers range between ¥50 million and ¥60 million a year per person,” the official says.

Some major headhunting and consulting firms have reportedly organized special project teams to entice nuclear engineers of Tepco and other Japanese power companies to work outside of the country for higher wages.

According to one headhunting consultant, annual pay equivalent to ¥50 million a year is a “global standard” for engineers specializing in nuclear energy-related technology. In Australia, he says, specialists working at liquefied natural gas plants earn an average of ¥50 million or more a year. “I wonder why those sent there from Japanese companies work for about ¥10 million a year without complaining.”

He also says, “With their esteem and wages likely to go down further in Japan, it would be only logical for Japanese nuclear engineers to move to (non-Japanese) employers who offer ¥60 million a year.”

In the years that followed the 1979 Three Mile Island and 1986 Chernobyl disasters, which were dubbed the “winter era of nuclear power,” Japan vigorously pushed the policy of constructing new nuclear power plants and accumulated valuable know-how for building nuclear power plants. This resulted in making Japan the only country in the world equipped with the know-how to operate the two main types of nuclear power reactors — the pressurized water reactor (PWR) and the boiling water reactor (BWR).

Technologically less advanced countries acquire skills and knowledge from more advanced nations through “reverse engineering,” in which they import state-of-the-art products through dummy companies then disassemble them to imitate their designs and structures. But this method does not work in the case of nuclear reactors.

Although the physical structure of a reactor may be imitated in this way, it is impossible to acquire the highly sophisticated know-how needed to operate and maintain a reactor. That’s why some countries are anxious to lure well-qualified nuclear engineers with extensive experience at nuclear power stations in Japan.

Nuclear power generation is made possible by the combination of such components as a pressure vessel, precision piping, a generator, a heat-resistant turbine and a facility to dispose of radioactive materials — all requiring highly advanced precision engineering.

Japanese corporations have excelled in every one of these areas. Hitachi, Mitsubishi and Toshiba have built up broad experience as general contractors for nuclear power plant construction. Nobody comes close to Japan Steel Works Ltd. and IHI Corp. when it comes to designing and manufacturing pressure vessels, while Organo Corp., another Japanese firm, is a dominant force in building facilities for disposing of water from reactors.

And it has been the engineers of Tepco and other power companies in Japan who have accumulated the know-how to operate nuclear power plants using nuclear power plant components that incorporate the most advanced technology.

Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung is among the Asian leaders who have expressed the hope of benefiting from the experience of Japanese nuclear engineers, who must have learned a lot from the dreadful situations at Fukushima, such as the meltdowns of nuclear fuel cores from overheating, and melt-through, in which molten nuclear fuel pierced the bottom of a pressure vessel.

Even since the Fukushima nuclear accidents, there has been little change in the global trend of making nuclear power the primary source of energy.

As of 2011, there were 431 nuclear power plants in the world, with the combined capacity to generate 365.72 million kW of electricity, accounting for 5 percent of global primary energy sources, according to statistics released by BP.

On top of this, more than 200 new nuclear power plants are scheduled to be completed by 2030 and the market size of nuclear power generation is likely to exceed ¥120 trillion within the next 20 years.

Even in the United States, which leads the world with 104 nuclear power plants, President Barack Obama regards nuclear power as an essential means of ensuring energy security and preventing global warming.

China and India plan to build 80 and 70 new nuclear power stations, respectively, by 2020. If disposal of radioactive wastes is taken into consideration, the size of the market related to nuclear power generation will easily surpass ¥150 trillion.

Meanwhile, Japan from this year will face a difficult task decommissioning old reactors that are more than 40 years old. To fulfill its responsibility to future generations of Japanese, Japan must secure a sufficient number of expert engineers who will carry out the decommissioning of old reactors.

As the decommissioning of the Fukushima reactors damaged by the Level 7 accident, the worst on the International Nuclear Event Scale, is unexplored territory, Japan cannot afford to allow a brain drain of its nuclear engineers.

Efforts to expose the responsibility of Tepco, which is trying to make a social comeback, must not slacken.

At the same time, the nation should squarely look at the serious energy security crisis bearing down on it.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the July issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering Japanese political, social and economic scenes.