Why you shouldn't rule out a career in nuclear

Despite continuing doubts over Hinkley Point, there are still significant opportunities in the UK nuclear sector. Evelyn Adams reports

The uncertainty over Hinkley Point C has been dominating headlines in recent months. Despite a deal from 2013, the future of the proposed £18bn nuclear power station remains unknown. There are concerns about the technology, and of EDF’s financial commitment to the project. Last month (March 2016), EDF announced that a decision on the power station will take place in May – and there are real fears that the ambitious project could be scrapped.

Sizewell aerial CGI
CGI of EDF's proposed Sizewell C power station

While the Hinkley saga might make it seem as if the UK’s commitment to nuclear power is waning, the industry insists that this is far from the case.

At the moment, the UK boasts 16 reactors with a combined electricity-generating capacity of 10GW. In total, these reactors create a sixth of the UK’s electricity, and all but one is due to retire in just seven years. To replace them, £45bn is due to be invested in the first three nuclear power plants that will be built – if plans go ahead – in Somerset, Anglesey and Cumbria.

The trend is reflected globally. Currently, there are 440 nuclear reactors operational in the world, 65 under construction and 337 proposed. As a result, the nuclear workforce in the UK is expected to grow by 4,700 people a year over the next six years. At the same time, 3,900 people are expected to leave the sector. The industry will have to recruit 8,600 engineers a year to make up the shortfall, regardless of whether Hinkley Point C gets funding.

Sizewell B power station
Sizewell B - which came online in 1995 - was the last nuclear power station to be built in the UK

“When you consider the UK’s stringent climate change targets, new nuclear power stations simply have to be built to reduce our carbon emissions,” said Peter Haslam, head of policy at the Nuclear Industry Association. “There has been much media speculation around Hinkley Point C, but the key point is there is backing from EDF itself, as well as the French and British governments.

Decommissioning our nuclear legacy will need engineers for the next 120 years

“Moreover, there are two other consortia planning to build power stations in the UK: Horizon and NuGeneration. The UK will not change its mind on nuclear now.” Haslam points out that the industry is on the brink of a massive new-build campaign with 16GW of new capacity planned. This, along with a decommissioning programme, will provide a wealth of opportunities for talented engineers.

“Decommissioning our nuclear legacy will need engineers for the next 120 years,” he added. “There are also plans to develop a geological waste repository in the next 30 years. Looking to the future, the UK could also be developing small modular reactors in the next 10 years. We could also be constructing plutonium burning plants to use our stockpile of plutonium.”

The nuclear industry faces some big challenges, particularly at Sellafield and for new-build projects, which will require some of the most advanced manufacturing. Throughout the initial development and construction phase of new plants, there will be significant opportunities in roles such as project managers, electrical, mechanical, control and instrumentation engineers. More broadly, however, engineers of all skills are needed.

“Aside from the opportunities offered by new plants, our existing plants also require skilled engineers,” said Ben Hough, nuclear recruitment specialist at Matchtech. “[This is] not just as a result of new and ongoing projects but also to fill the gaps left by an ageing workforce. EDF’s decision to extend the lifetime of Heysham, Hartlepool and Torness for another five to seven years will create numerous opportunities.”

There are plans to build a new nuclear plant on the existing site of Wylfa in north Wales. “This hasn’t had the publicity of Hinkley, but will be a major investment project for the UK engineering community,” said Hough. “A second is Nugen. This is a joint venture project based in Cumbria which is headed up by Toshiba and Engie, who are looking to build a new nuclear power station on Moorside.”

Hinkley Point C pre-construction works May '15
A final decision on Hinkley Point C is expected in May 2016

Meanwhile, Sellafield, a major employer in Cumbria that reprocesses spent nuclear fuel from plants across the UK, will be needed for the foreseeable future as the UK operates and decommissions more plants. “Keep an eye on the market. There are a lot of eyes on the industry at the moment and we expect that when these projects get the green light they will need to recruit quickly and extensively,” said Hough.

Owen Davey, a graduate engineer at Mott MacDonald, said he’s gained a great deal from his career so far. “Nuclear engineering careers are exciting and can deliver a range of opportunities,” he said. “They allow individuals to work in challenging areas to the highest level of technical detail and gain valuable experience for a long-term career. Graduates see a career in nuclear engineering as exciting to pursue because it can provide opportunities to solve problems not typically encountered in non-nuclear engineering sectors.”

Davey’s advice is to be knowledgeable about the industry and what nuclear generation involves, including the general process of generating electricity, but also safety and code requirements, and licensing conditions. “More and more are turning to nuclear power, or looking to expand their existing fleet of nuclear power stations. This creates a position for nuclear engineers within the UK to travel abroad for work.”

In no other industry are your engineering skills likely to be in such demand

Haslam said: “If you are interested in entering industry try and learn as much as you can about it. The industry is surprisingly open and there are lots of websites such as www.world-nuclear.org that explain what is going on in the industry and nuclear concepts. Consider joining the Nuclear Institute, which runs a number of events where you can learn more about the industry.

“In no other industry are your engineering skills likely to be in such demand, or to face such a breadth of challenges and innovation.”