With the UK facing the twin spectres of climate change and over-dependence on energy sources from abroad, nuclear power is once again at the top of the national agenda. That means the focus is also turning to the skills base needed to support the UK’s nuclear industry, and whether it is in a fit state to meet the challenges ahead.
While no final decision on the future of nuclear new-build has been made, projections suggest that the country will be importing about three quarters of its primary energy by 2020 if nuclear power is allowed to decline. In its last energy White Paper the government made clear its intention that nuclear will continue to play a part in securing the UK’s future energy provision.
Nuclear power currently accounts for around 20 per cent of UK generation, though many plants are reaching the end of their lives. All of the country’s 12 nuclear stations, which use mainly second-generation advanced gas-cooled reactors (AGRs), will have closed by 2023. Already, five of the nine first-generation Magnox stations, most of which were built in the 1960s, have closed after operating safely beyond their expected lives. Meanwhile, there is legislative pressure from the EU and beyond to lower the UK’s high carbon dioxide emissions. Although significant resources have been ploughed into developing a new generation of renewable energy sources, these are coming nowhere near filling the generation gap that nuclear’s demise would create.
If new-build goes ahead, there is no doubt that a large number of new engineering roles will be created, not just in the power stations themselves, but also in roles connected to the thorny issue of dealing with radioactive waste.
Also required will be support staff such as safety standards officers to deal with the regulatory issues created, including engineers examining internal hazards, commissioning reactor fault studies, and overseeing structural integrity of the plants.
Various initiatives have been put in place by government bodies, universities and private companies to both encourage new entrants into the industry at all levels and also encourage engineers with transferrable skills that are currently working in other sectors to come on board and build a career in the nuclear industry.
The National Skills Academy for Nuclear, set up at the request of employers in the sector, is currently in its first year of operation. Its vision is to create, develop and promote world-class skills and career pathways to support a sustainable future for the UK’s nuclear industry, creating flexibility and mobility among existing workers so they can adapt their skills to the industry as it changes in the coming years.
Their remit also includes attracting new staff to the sector. ‘We are working with the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority to increase the number of apprentices coming through,’ said Jean Llewellyn, chief executive. The organisation was originally set up to deal with decommissioning, but quickly moved to confront skills issues in all sectors of the nuclear industry, including defence, the whole fuel cycle and new-build, as well as the prospective building of a new deep repository for waste materials.
‘The fact that new-build is not guaranteed means that we are in a chicken and egg situation,’ said Llewellyn. ‘Companies are still unsure about taking people on. We have therefore enacted a salary subsidy scheme to develop a supply chain of skills. It has being going for six months and is proving really popular.’
In addition, the Academy has overseen the setting up of foundation programmes at the University of Central Lancashire and Portsmouth University. ‘It creates a good re-skilling tool for people wanting to move around within the industry,’ said Llewellyn. ‘The oil industry has traditionally taken quite a few engineers from the nuclear sector and now the flow is starting to reverse.’
Another important initiative is the National Nuclear Skills Passport scheme, in which every person working within the sector will have any nationally recognised training recorded. This should encourage workforce mobility and remove the need to retrain those moving geographically, as well as allowing the Academy to collate information on where skills gaps have occurred.
Attracting young people thinking of entering engineering to the nuclear sector has been identified as being of paramount importance. A number of universities such as Lancaster have been launching degrees in nuclear engineering over the last two to three years and are expecting their first output of graduates shortly.
Meanwhile, the opportunities for these and other students is growing, once they have completed their academic training. The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority has recently enacted a graduate scheme providing six-month placements in different parts of the industry over four years. This allows potential recruits a chance to explore their areas of interest and see where they would like to specialise. So far the scheme has proved itself to be highly popular and has had 1,000 applications for the 30 available places.
Private companies are also coming on board. This year, automation and control systems and on-site engineering, installation and commissioning services provider ATG Nuclear Division welcomed its first Sellafield graduate on to a joint training scheme set up by the two companies for training electrical engineering graduates in the nuclear industry. Under the scheme, graduates on the Sellafield training programme undertake a four to six- month placement at ATG, where they are provided with the opportunity to develop skills in a competitive supplier environment and gain a more robust grounding in all aspects of design and project management. Successful applicants continue their engineering careers at Sellafield. ‘We take on graduates to give them experience of real engineering tasks,’ said John McDonald, operations director at ATG. ‘It gives them a good insight into what we do.’
In another scheme, engineers wishing to move across from other industries now have access to the postgraduate courses being run across the UK by university members of the Nuclear Technology Education Consortium (NTEC) a number of leading UK universities offering an MSc in Nuclear Science and Technology arranged as a series of modules that can easily be taken part time while engineers are also working.
‘We offer a strong training set to people coming into the industry,’ said Andy Clarke, manager of nuclear postgraduate programmes at Manchester University, whose Dalton Nuclear Institute is an NTEC member. ‘Those studying take eight out of 21 modules across a broad spectrum, allowing them to decide where their interests take them.
‘The course is industry led, and modules can be taken remotely to fit around work. We expect student numbers to double this year — companies such as Amec and Rolls-Royce are now putting people on the course.’ But why has it become so popular? ‘People are becoming more comfortable with the concept of nuclear power again and see it as a good career path,’ explained Clarke.
Such support for potential recruits at all levels is vital in presenting the industry as one that has good long-term prospects, which would be worthwhile joining. ‘At the end of the day the whole nuclear engineering agenda needs to be seen as attractive,’ said the NSAN’s Llewellyn. ‘We need people with skills for the nuclear industry, not necessarily people with nuclear skills.’
A wide range of courses and schemes are on offer to attract new entrants and engineers in other sectors to the nuclear industry. Julia Pierce reports