Now that the government has confirmed it wants new UK nuclear power stations, the race is on to recruit enough engineers and scientists to deliver them.
However, there are serious questions as to whether this can be done quickly enough and whether it will do so at the expense of sectors such as renewable energy.
To answer this question we need to look at the present state of the nuclear industry. Much of the current workforce joined in the 1960s and 1970s. Consequently a large proportion of workers are now approaching retirement. Meanwhile, nine nuclear stations have been shut in the past 18 years and are being decommissioned — a process that will take many decades. Over the next 11 years seven more plants are scheduled to close. So we have a shrinking workforce with a rapidly growing burden of clean-up.
In 2002, a report from the DTI calculated that the nuclear industry needed to recruit nearly 30,000 skilled workers over the following 15 years to cope with this. It also noted 'hot-spots' in which skills shortages were already problematic — not least in the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate, the body that oversees the sector's safety.
It is on this shaky foundation the government thinks we should attempt to build about six large new nuclear plants of a type not yet commissioned anywhere in the world. This is a challenging goal.
The nuclear industry has for some time had difficulty attracting enough skilled staff. It was to help deal with this problem that the DTI report was commissioned — and this led to a range of initiatives that have been given further impetus by the announcement on new-build. For example, a few universities have started courses on nuclear engineering, while last October a multi-million pound research and training facility at Sellafield was announced.
However, the number of students taking physical sciences and engineering at university, upon which the sector depends, is falling. Between 1994 and 2001 there was a 26 per cent drop in enrolments for courses in these fields. And although in some disciplines, such as physics, the numbers are stabilising, in others, such as chemistry, the fall continues, exacerbated by large numbers of university departmental closures, despite a large rise in the total number of undergraduates.
An alternative source of nuclear expertise could be from abroad. With the design of the new plants likely to be either French or American, this seems inevitable. So, will this plug the skills gap? Well, this could be problematic too.
At a recent conference, the World Nuclear Association projected a massive expansion in the number of nuclear stations to be built worldwide. It estimated that 168 new plants could start up by 2020. However, it warned that skills shortages, especially in the West, could dash this expectation.
Then there is competition from the UK's nuclear weapons facilities, not least if parliament votes for Trident replacement this spring. It is ironic that such a decision might compound the problems of the civilian sector. It will certainly be harder for nuclear power facilities to attract skilled staff if the wider sector is associated with weapons of mass destruction.
Perhaps the most critical question is whether the nuclear industry will take skilled staff from more promising sectors such as renewable energy. The expansion of this sector, both here and globally, depends on skills in many of areas covered by the nuclear industry — especially civil, electrical and mechanical engineering and physics. The renewables sector is growing fast, not least because it does not suffer from the level of public concern about security, safety and the waste that nuclear power does.
In another DTI report published before the Energy Review, it was projected that employment in this area could expand from 8,000 to 17,000-35,000 by 2017. Whether it reaches the upper level will depend on a number of factors, not least the strength of the competition. One could argue that this is healthy and we should leave the market to decide. However, the nuclear sector's muscle — with its powerful supporters in government, industry, the unions and professional institutions all keen to demonstrate it can deliver — could cause the fledgling renewable energy sector to lose out because it lacks enough friends in high places.
Ultimately the decision could lie with the next generation of engineers and scientists. We need some of them to help decommission the existing plants as safely as possible. However, with the huge potential of renewable energy set against the concerns about security, safety, waste and economics of new nuclear build, we surely have to make renewables the priority.
Dr Stuart Parkinson is director of Scientists for Global Responsibility.
This article first appeared in the Scientists for Global Reponsibility winter 2007 newsletter.