Next generation

When the government announced its intentions to press ahead with nuclear power, detractors and supporters agreed that the number of skilled UK workers available to meet this growth is a worry.


When the government announced its intentions to press ahead with nuclear power, detractors and supporters agreed on one thing: the number of skilled UK workers that will be available to meet this proposed growth is a worry.


With much of the current workforce joining the sector in the 1960s and 70s, a large number of workers are now approaching retirement, and with a number of our power stations either going through or approaching decommissioning, the UK’s nuclear workforce is shrinking fast.


Enter ManchesterUniversity’s Dalton Nuclear Institute which this week announced what amounts to a £25m rescue package to stimulate the UK’s nuclear capability and train up the next generation of engineers.


The Institute’s Centre for Nuclear Energy Technology (C-NET) joins Imperial College’s £6.1m KNOO (keeping the nuclear option open) program, and its backers claim that it will help supply the industry with a new generation of science, engineering and technology graduates.


There’s a lot at stake – the new build market is estimated to be worth tens of billions of pounds and British industry shouldn’t miss the opportunity to capitalise on the huge opportunities on offer.


But in order to be truly successful, these schemes must tread a careful line between the past, present and future. In the short term, what the nuclear industry will really need is skilled operators for running and maintaining the next generation of nuclear reactors (most of which are likely to be built and developed by other countries). In the longer term however, the programmes must have an eye on the future. They must, for instance, ensure, that the UK’s rich experience in graphite reactor technology is passed onto to the engineers who may one day develop the high temperature reactor technology likely to be at the heart of future generation.


Assuming that initiatives such as C-NET and KNOO do help rebuild the UK’s nuclear workforce, some scientists are concerned that by closing one skills gap another will be opened elsewhere.


Writing last year in The Engineer, Dr Stuart Parkinson, the director of the pressure group Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR), argued that a renewed focus on nuclear engineering could have a negative effect on the burgeoning renewables sector – with the muscle of the nuclear industry filtering the UK’s engineers down the nuclear route and away from renewables.



Jon Excell, Features editor