Reacting to the skills shortage

The UK’s slump in nuclear research is putting the country at risk of a serious decline in skilled people. Niall Firth reports on the creation of an institute that could change all that.

With decommissioning, waste storage and a massive clean-up bill on its plate, the UK nuclear industry has enough food for thought to keep a 747-load of highly trained minds busy for years to come.

That much is clear from the debut report of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), which laid bare the tough choices facing the industry, and the nation, over the coming decade.

The NDA makes clear that decisions taken now will affect generations to come, but one of the lesser-heralded sections of its massive draft strategy document raises the issue of whether the future industry will have the most important resource of all: skilled people.

According to the NDA, the UK’s nuclear industry could be facing a skills shortage within three to five years. Its workforce is ageing, creating ‘a long-term succession problem… which needs to be addressed now.’

As part of a raft of proposals for maintaining an effective skills base, the NDA has allocated £25m to develop a national nuclear skills academy and a nuclear institute, both based in West Cumbria.

As most university courses currently focus on operational skills, the academy will try to identify the particular skills needed in decommissioning and establish national standards in key operational areas.

The NDA is also seeking formal DTI approval for a National Laboratory, which would act as a bridge between industry and R&D.

The proposals suggest that the UK is finally poised to act on the skills problem facing the nuclear industry. We cannot, however, claim that we were not warned. It is now more than five years since the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) delivered a wake-up call to the world’s nuclear nations.

A report from the international body warned that many countries were facing an alarming shortage of nuclear scientists and technologists. Its study, ‘Nuclear Skills — a Cause for Concern?’, highlighted the importance of maintaining an effective skills base to avoid future problems, and the perils of not doing so.

Governments of OECD member countries, including the UK, the US, France and Japan, were warned that unless immediate remedial action was taken, their capability to run nuclear programmes effectively would be reduced, perhaps to dangerous levels.

One of the key steps recommended in the report was the funding of academic research. Since the 1980s UK public investment in nuclear fission research has dropped by more than 95 per cent, a situation mirrored across other nations in the nuclear club.

However, unlike the UK, many of those other countries heeded the OECD’s warnings. Japan, France and Finland are all investing heavily in nuclear research, while the US has increased its budget for nuclear programmes in universities by £240m. France has also pledged more than £600m per year to its atomic energy commission’s civilian R&D programme.

As the NDA report remarks, the UK has still a lot to do, but it seems that at least it is setting off on the right track.

A new institute opened at ManchesterUniversitywithin the past few weeks is hoping to address part of the problem, and go some way towards meeting the UK’s pressing demand for skilled nuclear engineers. The Dalton Nuclear Institute has been launched with the aim of not only becoming a centre of excellence in the UK, but one of the top academic nuclear centres in the world.

The institute’s business manager, Warren Richards, claimed the nuclear skills base in the UK was in danger of being left behind. ‘A lot of other countries have maintained their nuclear capability,’ he said. ‘But we have let things slide for two decades. A number of key nuclear disciplines is showing signs of developing shortages, which could threaten not only the UK’s future nuclear programme, but even its ability to meet its decommissioning commitments.’

Working with the EPSRC and a number of other British universities, the Dalton Nuclear Institute is setting up the Nuclear Technology and Education Consortium (NTEC). This will establish a new postgraduate nuclear study programme aimed at both students and industry.

The institute will function as the focal point for much of the university’s current nuclear research, and plans to increase its expertise base and the scope of its activities significantly. It will focus particularly on areas where the UK lags behind its nuclear counterparts in France and the US.

One of these areas is radiation science, and in particular radiation chemistry, a discipline not currently covered in any UK academic programme. It studies the effect that radiation has on materials and how they behave when exposed to radioactivity. This should lead to developments in nuclear waste management, as scientists study the containers in which waste material is stored and the long-term effects radiation has on them. As well as improving the storage of radioactive waste, this could also lead to advances in the construction of new reactors.

According to Richards, the institute will provide future engineers with the facilities both to fulfil decommissioning programmes and to develop innovative new solutions to help them decommission more effectively.

Internationally the institute will be involved in collaborative advanced research into the next generation of reactors, Generation IV. Reactor technology will be a top priority for the institute, said Richards.

‘We don’t really have the academic know-how in reactor technology any more,’ he claimed. ‘We need to know how they operate and how they are designed, even if we are just buying designs from abroad.’

To this end, the institute will send researchers to France and the US to gain hands-on experience in working with reactor technology.

Richards said: ‘The skills exist in this country but they are all in industry, and industry is fickle. We need to have people researching nuclear technology without it being driven through commercial interests. It must be for the sake of retaining knowledge and expertise in the UK.’

Manchester University already has a well-established nuclear medicine centre, and the Dalton Institute has commissioned a report to investigate which techniques used in this field could be applied to decommissioning. One example would be the application of body imaging techniques to monitor the pipes that carry radioactive materials.

In the next few months scientists from the institute will travel to the US’s flagship nuclear institute, the Idaho National Laboratory. They plan to set up links with the Idaho facility to see how the two centres can work together. Richards said: ‘We will be covering the same areas as Idaho, although they will have much bigger facilities.’

The Dalton Institute hopes to cover the future skill requirements for the UK nuclear industry. But Richards echoed the NDA report when he warned that there is still work to be done dealing with the UK’s nuclear past. ‘We still need to invest in the technical know-how to decommission our current fleet of old reactors.

Investment may never reach the level of the 1970s or 1980s,’ he said, ‘but we hope to go some way towards remedying the situation.’