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Estonian universities anticipate high costs of training nuclear experts

The future of nuclear energy in Estonia will be decided next year. Universities in Estonia are ready to train specialists in this field, but this requires new curricula, recruiting expensive lecturers from abroad and years of preparation. Due to Estonia's small population, the pool of nuclear specialists for Estonia must be trained internationally to ensure impartiality in decision making processes.

If Estonia decides to build its own nuclear power plant, it will probably also have to set up a radiation safety and nuclear security authority, similar to as in other nuclear countries.

While the agency could hire a few dozen professionals before the facility is operational, it should eventually employ 60-80 experts. We can compare ourselves to our northern neighbors.

"We have over 100 workers in the nuclear reactor regulation department and roughly 25 in the nuclear waste department in charge of nuclear safety, so about 130-140 people in total," Tomi Routamo, deputy director of the Finnish radiation protection center, said.

The first reactor is the most expensive for the country, both financially and in terms of the demand for experts. The question of how many experts the plant needs is much more complicated.

"The number of persons in the preliminary phase is about 50-60, while during construction it reaches a few hundred, 200-300. It is expected to be 400 or more throughout the operational period," Siim Espenberg, the head of the center for applied social science research at the University of Tartu, said.

Since Estonia is the only nuclear country with a small population, predicting the need for experts is impossible. There are few reactors in the world that are a reasonable size for Estonia. However, building a nuclear power facility in Estonia would require 10 or more classes of nuclear experts in additional to the current ones.

There is also a concern characteristic of small population countries that officials from a regulatory body and nuclear plant managers could be past classmates. The agency must be objective and rigorous. This implies that the expert community cannot be too small. It is also critical that nuclear workers have actual expertise in order to deal with unanticipated scenarios.

In Estonia, general knowledge of nuclear energy is already taught in Tallinn and Tartu.

"Universities have the expertise to teach these subjects, at least at the foundational level. Personally, I have completed two nuclear energy courses since 2008, one an introduction to nuclear energy and the other a six-credit course on nuclear energy," Alan Tkaczyk, an associate professor of engineering at the University of Tartu, said.

However, in order to do it more thoroughly and develop specialists, we need real curriculum rather than just a few courses. This is exactly what had been suggested over a decade ago.

"One semester was scheduled for extra physics, as well as chemistry and environmental topics. The first semester was planned in Tartu, with the second semester focusing on the station and thermal engineering at the University of Technology. The third semester was a semester of specialization; if a student chose to study engineering, they went to Tallinn University of Technology, and if they wanted to study science, they went to the University of Tartu. The fourth semester was set aside for an internship at a business," Tkaczyk recalled.

At that time,10 years ago,  the plan failed. It is difficult to say whether this was related to the Fukushima disaster in Japan and the accompanying lack of interest in society, or simply because the country did not have a concrete plan to develop nuclear energy. However, Tallinn University of Technology and the University of Tartu keep asserting that curriculum can be established in Estonia, but the scope must be international.

"Certainly, people should be brought in from overseas, and in my opinion, some people from Estonia should be trained abroad. This type of curriculum, which can span years, can be used to teach professionals at a specific level, but it is also possible for a small number of specialists, perhaps five or ten, to be trained abroad," Aune Valk, vice-rector of the University of Tartu, said.

These top researchers are quite expensive, particularly if they are recruited from the western Europe or the Nordic countries.

"We are talking about a wage bill of around €150,000 per year. Also, such a top specialist would be expecting investment funding for the establishment of laboratories, a research group, and the recruitment of PhD students. These are very significant investments," Hendrik Voll, vice rector of Tallinn University of Technology, said.

The new curricula could take seven to 10 years to produce Estonia's own nuclear engineers, possibly up to 15 years if they are required to obtain practical experience with an employer. Universities are hesitant to start on such costly and time-consuming projects until Estonia has made a solid decision to build a nuclear power plant.

"We might end up educating highly expensive professionals for western Europe, the Nordic countries, or certain eastern European countries if we don't develop nuclear energy here," Voll said.

Universities agree that the future of the nuclear power plant in Estonia will require the creation of a school of nuclear engineers.

"I think we also want to do it: first, it is a matter of reputation; second, scientific curiosity; and third, if this is a national decision, the University of Tartu, as a national university, has an obligation to society and the state to participate as best we can," Aune Valk said.

Voll added that in the energy sector, Estonia needs to address the problem that electricity is two or more times more expensive than in its northern neighbors. But whether the solution is a nuclear power plant, neither scientists nor universities can say.

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Editor: Merili Nael, Kristina Kersa

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