Careers in the UK nuclear sector

4 min read

Power trip: As the UK’s nuclear plans take shape, so too will career opportunities for engineers in the sector.

A new era is dawning for the UK nuclear industry. A deal for Hinkley Point, the planned £24.5bn nuclear power station in Somerset, is set to be signed in October. It’s a major move for the UK nuclear sector, which hasn’t built a new power plant since the 1995 commissioning of Sizewell B.

More deals are expected to follow. There are currently 16 reactors with a total generating capacity of 10GW of electricity in the UK. They produce a sixth of the UK’s electricity – yet all but one will be retired by 2023. To replace ageing equipment, companies are investing £45bn in the first three nuclear power plants to be built in Anglesey, Cumbria and Somerset.

Overall, current proposals call for at least 11 new nuclear reactors at five sites: Hinkley Point C and Sizewell C, both developed by EDF subsidiary NNB Genco; Wylfa Newydd and Oldbury by Horizon Nuclear Power; and Moorside by NuGen.  These power stations are hoped to produce up to 16GW of nuclear power capacity. But with new power stations being built alongside the decommissioning of existing facilities, the sector is in desperate need of new engineering talent.

Hinkley C
Artist’s impression of twin reactors at Hinkley Point C nuclear power station

“The industry has effectively lost a generation of nuclear engineers,” said Ben Hough, department manager of energy at Matchtech. “There is a demand for skills across almost all nuclear-related disciplines and there are wide-ranging opportunities for engineers in the sector. Mechanical, civil and structural, electrical and manufacturing engineers are in particularly high demand.”

The workforce is expected to grow by 4,700 people a year over the next six years. During the same period, 3,900 people are expected to leave the sector. This means that companies in the industry and its associated supply chain must recruit 8,600 engineers each year to plug their current skills gap. Attracting the right talent has so far proved difficult.

”There is a demand for skills across almost all nuclear-related disciplines and there are wide-ranging opportunities for engineers in the sector

Ben Hough, Matchtech

There is some uncertainty on the timing and awarding of contracts, which Cogent said has led to some reluctance among SMEs to train and upskill engineers. But engineers who choose to follow a career in nuclear could reap significant rewards.

“Nuclear is a dynamic and innovative industry, and an engineer can expect to join a growing workforce with long-term career prospects, competitive salaries and crucially, challenging and rewarding work,” said Hough. “In the UK, the industry will soon be entering a ‘renaissance’, where the projects in the pipeline offer longevity and take on board unique engineering practices not seen in engineering as a whole.”

In terms of technical challenges, the industry also provides an unrivalled opportunity for engineers. Engineers will be needed to manufacture key components such as pressure vessels, heat exchangers and pipework. Other systems still need to be designed for services to support the plant and deal with its waste, and the infrastructure to manage these projects will need to be built. The major energy companies are focusing on increasing awareness of the sector by promoting STEM subjects at school.

sizewell c
Artist’s overhead view of Sizewell C

“In the meantime, employers need to take an open-minded approach to recruitment and consider candidates looking to transfer from other sectors, flexible working options to retain and attract talent and work with their retiring workforce to ensure knowledge is passed on to the next generation of leaders,” said Hough. “In essence, employers have to look to every source of talent available in order to fill the skills gap now.”

Transferring between industries is actively encouraged. “These sectors are often those with complex hazards and high safety cultures, such as oil and gas, marine, defence, rail, pharmaceuticals and aerospace,” said Andrew Munro, engineering operations director at Rolls-Royce. “Many design principles are similar but obviously the specific projects and nuclear applications will be different, and there are some codes and standards that are specific to the industry that people would have to learn.”

”Employers need to take an open-minded approach to recruitment and consider candidates looking to transfer from other sectors, flexible working options to retain and attract talent and work with their retiring workforce to ensure knowledge is passed on to the next generation of leaders

Ben Hough

Regardless of the sector, employers like to see proof of ‘hands-on experience’ and detailed examples of a candidates’ project work, he added. For those interested in transferring, they can acquire the relevant skills by taking a specific nuclear course such as the Triple Bar, which has been developed by EDF Energy to provide individuals with a basic level of understanding about working within a nuclear environment.

“Engineering work in the nuclear industry tends to be stable, baseload and in relation to longer-term projects,” added Munro. “The benefit of this are continuity and stability of work, and it provides candidates with the opportunity to become technical experts in certain areas. It often involves cutting-edge technology working on technically advanced projects. It can range from concept design through to substantiation.”

hinkley b
Workers in the turbine hall at Hinkley Point B

There a number of disadvantages. EDF said it can sometimes be a slow-moving industry and one that is inherently risk-averse. There are also various health and safety standards that have to be adhered to. According to Martyn Butlin, corporate affairs manager for EDF, work locations are often in remote parts of the country. “Finding city life is hard to find and it can take a long time to become a subject matter expert,” she added.

“Another potential drawback is the security-clearance process,” said Hough. “Candidates are required to have lived and worked in the UK for a minimum of five years, depending on the level of security clearance required. This process can hinder attracting suitably skilled workers from overseas, including UK nationals who may have chosen to live and work overseas for a period of time. While the security-clearance process is in place for good reasons, there may need to be a review of the process if it continues to hinder the sourcing of talent.”

But the industry leader agrees the benefits outweigh the disadvantages for the right candidate. The problem is in communicating that to the wider public. The UK has historically relied on nuclear energy, and it could do so once again if the skills gap can be addressed. This is a tough challenge, but one the industry must grasp. If it fails, it will be doing the sector, and the UK as a whole, a disservice.

Learn how to write the perfect engineering CV