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EDF-sponsored welders school aims to plug nuclear sector gaps

FILE PHOTO: A flag with the EDF logo flies next to the EDF power plant in Bouchain

By Benjamin Mallet

La Hague, FRANCE (Reuters) - One of the many woes plaguing French utility giant EDF as it races to put its record number of offline nuclear reactors back in service is a lack of specialist welders.

EDF's nuclear output has been reduced to a 30-year low because of the unprecedented number of outages, adding major stress as Europe scrambles to cope with the impact of the war in Ukraine and avert power cuts.

To address the lack of specialist workers EDF has sponsored, alongside other industrial groups, a new school to train welders - and to do so fast.

"We have to be inventive and ... reduce the time it takes to acquire those skills," said Corentin Lelievre, the director of Hefais school, which opened in October.

"There is a real urgency because we have major industrial projects in the coming years," said David Le Hir, who is Hefais' president and also director of EDF's Flamanville 1 and 2 nuclear plants.

The nuclear industry will need about 1,000 welders by 2030, from around 500 now, he said.

The school will teach basic welder skills for entry-level work in nuclear plants in nine months. But training a highly skilled nuclear welder usually takes five to seven years. Hefais will aim to do that faster, though Lelievre declined to give a specific target.

Key tools to speed training include virtual-reality practice of technical work, as well as real-life training on the type of piping welders will encounter in nuclear plants.

Some 40 welders will be trained at the school this year rising to 200 a year from next year.

French nuclear fuel firm Orano, shipbuilding companies Naval Group and CMN and local authorities are co-sponsoring the school, for a total investment of around 10 million euros ($10.50 million).

The lack of welders comes as France, like other Western countries, has long suffered a skills mismatch. Despite relatively high unemployment, 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.

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.

($1 = 0.9520 euros)

(Reporting by Benjamin Mallet; Writing by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Elaine Hardcastle)