Nuclear sector faces experts crisis

Britain’s nuclear industry could lack the expertise to maintain its current operations within the next 10 years, the Health and Safety Executive has warned.

The HSE, whose Nuclear Installations Inspectorate regulates the industry, expressed this concern at a recent meeting of the British Nuclear Industry Forum, which was attended by DTI officers. It said the sector faced a skills crisis unless more relevant engineering and sciences courses are introduced in universities soon.

‘The HSE feels there should be more nuclear expertise coming out of the universities,’ said John Haddon, BNIF director for trade and industry.

He said the industry’s concern, by contrast, was that there should be enough ‘good engineering and science graduates to provide it with the people it needs in future’.

Haddon said companies felt they could train graduates in the specifics of the industry. The industry’s problem is that its key staff are getting older — partly a legacy of the public perception that it has no real future — and many are coming up to retirement. A senior executive with the leading nuclear contractor NNC, who is in his late 50s, said: ‘I’d like to retire but I can’t — there’s no one to replace me.’

Now that further nuclear development is being considered once again — to reduce dependence on gas and to help meet commitments on greenhouse gas emissions — the problem threatens to become more acute. This is because the industry’s staffing requirements for existing operations, including decommissioning work, are unlikely to reduce over the next 10 years.

While British Energy denied a report over the weekend that it had plans for a new generation of reactors to replace its advanced gas-cooled plants, any such new-build programme would require thousands of additional engineers and other specialists.