Atomic pathway: graduate engineer career guide to the nuclear industry

The UK’s decision to build a new fleet of nuclear power stations is opening up an exciting set of career paths for young engineers.

Why work in nuclear?

You’ll help safeguard our energy security … and environment

Working in a nuclear power station means helping keeps Britain’s lights on.

Nuclear is arguably going to be our most important energy source for the next 50 years or so. Sure, other low-carbon sources like wind, solar and marine power will play an increasing role – but nuclear is proven to be reliable at keeping the lights on at the national level. Britain led the world in the technology in the 1950s; and now with the urgent need to drive down carbon emissions and curb climate change, it’s time for ‘new nuclear’ to step up to the plate. For that, the industry will need thousands of graduate engineers.

You’ll take part in the world’s biggest collective infrastructure project

The UK wants to build at least 12 new nuclear reactors, including at Hinkley Point in Somerset.

The Olympics, HS2, Crossrail? Small fry next to nuclear. Each reactor costs around £8bn and there are firm plans afoot to build at least 12 new ones in the UK, which together, will produce around 16 GW of nuclear power – nearly half of the nation’s total generating capacity.

EDF Energy intends to build four new reactors by 2023 at Hinkley Point in Somerset and Sizewell in Suffolk; NuGen (owned by Toshiba and GDF Suez) three reactors by 2024 at Moorside in West Cumbria; and Horizon Nuclear Power (owned by Hitachi), two or three new nuclear reactors each at Wylfa on Anglesey and Oldbury in South Gloucestershire by the mid-2020s.

Yet, the UK’s plans represent the tip of the iceberg of a global nuclear renaissance – spearheaded by China and the USA as well as countries like France, Finland, Russia and the United Arab Emirates. At the time of writing China alone has 28 reactors under construction.

A guaranteed job for life?

Nuclear engineers
Nuclear power stations require highly specialised expertise that will be used for decades.

Certainly it’s as close as you’re likely you find one. Nuclear power plants have an operating lifespan of around 30 to 40 years  ̶  with new build hopefully stretching to as long as 60 years. But there’s also the all-important cleanup and ‘legacy’ aspect of the industry (see below) which will last even longer. The sector also pays well, with starting salaries around £28,000 – well above the graduate average – and roles that are often based around the UK.

So what does the UK nuclear industry do?

The short answer is, of course, it generates energy for the UK’s homes and businesses. But that encompasses everything from designing and building new plants, supplying fuel, maintaining and operating the country’s eight existing power stations and decommissioning its old ones.

Building for the future

Rolls Royce nuclear manufacturing graduate
Rolls-Royce builds submarine reactors and now plans to supply the new civil programme.

While overseas-based companies like Areva will lead on the manufacture of reactor systems and turbines, UK firms are likely to undertake a large amount of sub-contracted work. That involves components such as heating and ventilation, pipework and valves for the secondary systems outside and control and instrumentation.

For example, Rolls Royce, which already supplies instrumentation and control systems for nuclear plants in 20 countries around the world and builds reactors for Britain’s nuclear-powered submarines, is to manufacture complex components and provide engineering and technical services for EDF’s Hinkley Point reactors. Working with the UK’s Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre in Sheffield, other companies have the chance to gain the necessary capability to get involved in the supply chain as well.

The mother of all clean-ups

Sellafield reprocesses spent nuclear fuel and decommissions old power plants.

It’s a large and complex job to safely dismantle old reactors and store the spent fuel – a process called decommissioning. With the UK building the world’s first commercial reactor in 1956 at Calder Hall, it has, by necessity, also developed considerable expertise in decommissioning.

There are 12 sites with more than 20 reactors currently in the process of being decommissioned in the UK, a job that will be fully complete by 2080, and another 14 currently operational reactors that will reach the end of their lives in the next 10 years. That’s quite a backlog that will cost an estimated £73 billion to deal with – currently the responsibility of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority working with companies such as Sellafield Ltd and Magnox Ltd. Meanwhile on the very northern tip of Scotland, Dounreay Site Restoration Ltd is cleaning up three old experimental reactors.

World-leading research

The UK is a key partner in the experimental fusion reactor ITER.

The UK is still punches above its weight when it comes to certain aspects of nuclear research such as materials science, measurement and analysis and fuel and radioisotope technology with expertise centred around institutions like the National Nuclear Laboratory and the Dalton Nuclear Institute at the University of Manchester.

The UK also has great heritage and a considerable future stake in nuclear fusion energy research through Culham Centre for Fusion Energy and the $50 billion ITER experimental fusion reactor being built in the South of France by an international consortium including the UK.

What kind of jobs are on offer and where?

EDF’s graduate scheme can includes stints working in several power stations around the country.

Clearly it’s an exciting time for graduate engineers who are interested in nuclear. But as we’ve seen above there’s a bewildering amount of entry points. Some companies such as EDF, the National Nuclear Laboratory, Nuvia, Cavendish Nuclear, AMEC, Sellafield and Springfields Fuels (a Westinghouse company) run centralized graduate schemes, which typically involve a broad initial training phase where graduates are exposed to different areas within the company, before they go on to specialize.

Many of the schemes also support graduates in the path to becoming a chartered engineer through accreditation by official bodies such as the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) and the Institution of Engineering & Technology (IET).

The graduate scheme at EDF has four potential entry routes depending on candidates’ degree subject, namely: chemical engineering; electrical engineering and control & instrumentation engineering; material Science and metallurgy; and mechanical engineering. But they all have in common the rotation path which includes stints in Central Technical Organisation, Station Engineering, Operations, Maintenance; Technical & Safety.

Graduates should be expected to move at least a couple of times during the training phase to locations including Heysham Power Stations in Lancashire, Hartlepool Power Station, County Durham and Hunterston Power Station, North Ayrshire.

EDF grads get the chance to sample a wide variety of roles.

EDF takes on around 60 graduates each year in the Autumn. Like most of the graduate schemes it runs assessments days which involve problem-solving tasks which draw on real-life scenarios nuclear professionals encounter in their day to day jobs. Indeed, nuclear employers are increasingly looking for graduates who have gained work experience in the sector during university term breaks.

But at the very least EDF suggests that interested graduates should take a trip to their new public visitor centres, such as the one at the Heysham site which opened last year and includes a tour of the reactor viewing gallery, the turbine hall and the cooling water intake.

Aside from the central schemes there are graduate opportunities for particular projects and suppliers and specialist recruiters can help match candidates to the right position. For example Morson Group has more than 2,500 nuclear engineers of all levels working on UK projects currently.

But what roles might graduates find themselves doing ultimately? Training in the nuclear sector is a life-long progression rather than just in the few years after graduating. But to take real example, graduates may work as trainee operations engineer for a period before becoming reactor operator, working shifts in the control room with a team to operate, shutdown and start-up the plant safely. That’s about as close to the action as it gets.

A career in nuclear can mean working in some surprisingly picturesque locations, such as Hunterston in Scotland.

As site civil engineer you might be involved with structural studies of plant modification proposals ─ using hand calculations and design packages to analyse structures and their suitability to carry proposed loads. The role might also involve reviewing and assessing sub-contractor designs and, where appropriate, offering alternative methods. Many roles though will be reactive to certain needs and problems as they arise, focusing on specific projects before moving on to something else.

A process engineer in the nuclear decommissioning sector might be commissioned to work on a waste encapsulation plant project, to give a real example. This would be done by developing a simulation model detailing the processes of other facilities on site including the waste retrieval, long term waste storage and transport.

If you want the inside track on engineering jobs in other industries, take a look at our full list of sector guides.

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