Plant material

With the UK seemingly on the verge of a new nuclear revolution, skilled workers will experience unprecedented demand

On 17 October 1956, a young Queen Elizabeth II opened the UK’s first commercial nuclear power station at Calder Hall, Cumbria. To those present, this heralded the dawn of a new modern era of clean energy generation with ‘the mighty atom’ at its heart. Although concerns over safety, costs and disposal of waste have brought mixed fortunes to the industry in the interim, nearly 60 years on, power generation within the UK again stands poised on the verge of a second nuclear revolution as a wave of new plant construction builds. All of this is good news for engineers; if all goes to plan, workers with both previous sector experience and relevant transferable skills will face unprecedented demand.

One of the companies at the centre of the new-build programme is Hitachi-owned Horizon Nuclear Power. It currently has two main projects requiring new engineering staff: development of Horizon’s lead site, Wylfa Newydd; as well as general organisation development, as the company grows to have the capability and capacity to perform all its necessary roles and responsibilities across the project’s lifecycle, from developer and nuclear site licensee, through to plant owner and operator. The workforce has already grown dramatically. When acquired by Hitachi at the end of 2012, Horizon’s team consisted of 80 people. This has now more than doubled to around 170, and is expected to grow to around 450 by 2017–18. Peak construction workforce will be around 6,000, with the operational number being up to 1,000. Recruitment is taking place right across Horizon’s organisation in all engineering disciplines and at all levels, although there is now a particular focus on boosting strength at ‘head of’ or lead level. As well as looking at those with previous industry experience, it is considering those across other engineering fields and other sectors.

‘Our project presents huge opportunities both now and into the future. Horizon will be growing rapidly over the next five years and from development, through construction, commissioning and on into operation, we will have an ongoing demand for talented individuals across a whole range of disciplines,’ said Rachel Worrall, HR business partner at Horizon. ‘The length and complexity of our project also means there are prospects for people at all stage of their careers, from graduates through to experienced industry experts, and we believe that nuclear new-build represents one of the most exciting sectors to be in over the coming years.’

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No mention of new-build would be complete without outlining EDF Energy’s plans. The company is at the forefront of expanding Britain’s nuclear power stock and aims to create four new latest-generation European pressurised water reactor (EPRs) plants: two each at Hinkley Point in Somerset and Sizewell in Suffolk, all adjacent to the existing sites. More than 25,000 job opportunities are set to be created during the construction phase of Hinkley Point C, the more advanced of the two projects. Once completed, the power station will provide 900 full-time jobs over its 60 years of operation while generating enough low-carbon electricity for five million homes. Meanwhile, Sizewell — currently still in the consultation phase — could create around 700 permanent and 200 contract positions.

Although EDF is still yet to give final commitment to its Hinkley plant, Phase 2 of site-preparation work began last month and will help facilitate main construction activities following a final investment decision. The company estimates that 57 per cent of the project’s construction value could be spent in the UK, with the aim of building skills and expertise that will help those participating to win a greater share of future work within nuclear programmes nationally and globally.

‘The market is getting very excited about the renaissance of the industry,’ said Simon Wilson, department manager for Matchtech’s energy division. ‘Everyone is waiting for EDF’s announcement later in the summer concerning the finalisation of the new-build programme, but most major hurdles have been passed — the price of electricity is in place, and the planning, licences and design are all fine.’

But it is not just new-build that is creating work. ‘Demand for engineers is coming from four sources: decommissioning, operational sites, defence and nuclear new-build,’ Wilson added, noting that competition was fierce. ‘If current plans are completed, and everything that is planned is completed by around 2030, we will have almost doubled our current nuclear capacity,’ said Keith Parker, chief executive of the Nuclear Industry Association (NIA). ‘There will be an enormous requirement for new people to build and operate these stations. They will have a 60-year operating life, so we will need several generations of operators. For those entering the industry,
these will be lifetime careers. The decommissioning programme is also taking place across 19 sites. Although this will decline gradually over time, by that point newer plants will also be in a position to need such services.’

In order to attract more people into the industry to meet the surge in demand, the NIA will shortly launch the Re:generation initiative. This aims to raise awareness of the emerging opportunities within the nuclear sector, bridge the skills gap and attract a new generation of employees. It aims to raise the profile of the nuclear industry and highlight the extensive array of challenging, diverse and interesting opportunities that exist across all parts of the sector.

However, while the industry’s future looks rosy, there are concerns that nuclear power could face problems competing for workers with the many other UK engineering projects in the pipeline. ‘At the moment the nuclear industry is not quite as welcoming for the transfer of skills as it needs to be,’ noted Matchtech’s Wilson. ‘This will have to change, and we have already placed the nuclear department at Matchtech within the infrastructure division as it will allow us to look at all the coming projects… and then place people according to need.’

If nuclear power is to attract the best from a still-limited pool of engineers, it seems there is no time to hesitate, particularly as demand in other sectors builds up. Although a new generation of nuclear-specific engineers is on its way, demand will be such that the industry cannot afford to lose momentum, or risk losing out to projects elsewhere.

Employer focus

With an increase in the numbers taking ‘nuclear’ courses, companies and organisations are reaching out to undergraduates

According to the Nuclear Industry Association’s 2012 capability report, the coming expansion of the UK’s nuclear capacity will increase the number of those employed within the industry from 40,000 to 66,500. Yet the National Skills Academy for Nuclear has pointed out that one of the major skills issues facing the industry is its ageing workforce, with more than half of current employees expected to retire in the next 10 years. It is therefore clear that fresh graduates will have to play a major part in filling these new positions and universities have expanded the number of nuclear-specific courses in anticipation.

‘The National Skills Academy for Nuclear and Cogent are working hard within the supply chain to make sure that British companies can deliver this new-build,’ said Keith Parker, chief executive at the Nuclear Industry Association. ‘Since 2006 there has been a huge increase in the number of university courses being offered… Student demand for places on these is very buoyant. Young people now see the nuclear industry as having a very bright future.’

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Not only are the opportunities for training expanding; companies are also reaching out to connect with students during their studies, picking the most promising candidates for post-graduation work experience that may lead to a long-term position. Hitachi-owned Horizon Nuclear Power is linked in to universities such as Birmingham and has taken on a small number of graduates over the past few years. One to watch as a major potential employer of the future, it soon plans to grow the quantity and range of graduates it recruits as new-build progresses.

Meanwhile, over at EDF Energy, which has eight nuclear power sites across the UK and has published plans to build two new reactors at Hinkley Point in Somerset, a dedicated training programme for nuclear science and engineering graduates is already in place. As well as offering students summer placements or a year in industry during their course, successful graduates will be enrolled on a 12-month programme that allows them to gain experience of a wide variety of aspects of the industry, before choosing where to base their career. As far as possible, the schemes are accredited by a related professional body, allowing participants to take their first steps towards qualifications such as chartership. Good examples of this are the Electrical or Control & Instrumentation programmes, which are accredited by the Institute for Engineering & Technology (IET).

On the decommissioning side, nucleargraduates is offering a very attractive package to candidates. Backed by more than 20 different organisations who work within the nuclear industry, and designed and put together by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), the scheme aims to make sure there are sufficient engineers on hand to ensure the safe, accelerated and affordable clean-up of the UK’s civil nuclear legacy. Those who win a place undertake a two-year scheme, including three eight-month secondments based in the UK, although there is potential for an international secondment. Along with a ‘golden hello’, they receive a salary of around £24,00