Nuclear future

While the UK debates it energy strategy most in the industry are confident the nuclear sector is set to expand, bringing new career opportunities. Julia Pierce reports.

With the twin problems of climate change and rising energy prices looming large, nuclear power is once again at the forefront of the UK’s energy agenda.

Nuclear accounts for about 20 per cent of generation and it is unclear what will be able to cover this shortfall once existing facilities are retired.

Many nuclear plants are reaching the end of their lives. Five of the nine first-generation Magnox power stations, most of which were built in the 1960s, have already closed after operating safely beyond their expected lives.

The rest of the country’s 12 plants, which use mainly second-generation advanced gas-cooled reactors, will all have closed by 2023. The last plant to come online, in 1990, was the UK’s single pressurised water reactor Sizewell B.

Although this might suggest a sector in decline, in truth, the reality is different. Following the positive signals in the government’s Energy White Paper last year, most within the industry are confident that the country’s nuclear generation capacity is soon to expand, provided the thorny issue of dealing with waste is dealt with.

The UK is committed to reducing carbon dioxide emissions, and many are uncomfortable with projections that the UK will be importing about 75 per cent of its primary energy by 2020. But there is more to the nuclear industry than energy generation — even if this is what is stealing the headlines.

Anyone who still believes the industry may be in decline is sorely mistaken. ‘This is an exciting time,’ said Ian Britten, who heads the HSE’s nuclear strategy development function, but also has responsibility for overseeing learning and development matters.

‘There are many things going on besides new-build, including the building of four nuclear submarines at Barrow-in-Furness and the possibility that we may need more. There is also a huge and very sophisticated decommissioning process for old nuclear stations and, although not within our remit, the nuclear fusion research taking place at Culham. Nuclear submarines are being decommissioned at Devonport Dockyard and the industry is also investing in the building of new facilities for waste.

‘Even without any new-build there is plenty of work for regulators to deal with all of this.’

As a high-hazard industry, the nuclear sector has a great need for safety standards regulators. The Health and Safety Executive is about to start a round of recruitment in the nuclear sector that will last until the end of the year. It aims to increase the number of people working in this division from about 155 to 192.

‘This is something that is required regardless of the decision over whether there will be any nuclear new build,’ said the HSE’s Britten.

In anticipation of what it believes will be a green light for new build, the HSE has already established a division ready to undertake work such as new build design assessment. Although the unit is relatively small, there are plans to expand it if the government commits to nuclear energy for the UK’s future.

‘Of course, if the decision to go ahead with that is taken then we will need an additional 35 members of staff,’ said Britten. ‘We are having to increase our numbers as we have to meet growing demand for regulatory services in this area — we are already being affected without the decision even having been made, although we are anticipating that this will be positive.

‘Another reason for recruitment is that we will have a number of existing staff retiring in the next five years, though we have anticipated this also.’

The HSE is looking for engineers with a wide range of skills who are also capable of dealing with the human side of regulation, such as presenting advice that may sometimes face resistance.

‘We want people with good degrees and who are chartered or have membership of professional organisations,’ said Britten.

‘We are seeking people who have experience of high-hazard industries but who also have the personal characteristics to be able to deal with the work that we do. They have to be adaptable, resilient and persuasive in order to retain credibility.’

Areas in which experience would be welcome include internal hazards, reactor fault studies, structural integrity, chemical engineering, civil engineering and criticality.

As well as seeking people for its advertised positions, the organisation is open to applications from individuals who think they may be able to match their skills to the HSE’s needs. These would include people who had worked at major chemicals sites, in gas distribution and the offshore industry.

Meanwhile AMEC, the largest private sector engineering, consultant and project management company in the UK nuclear industry, is also reaping the benefits of the activity. It supports all of the key nuclear licensees and the industry’s regulators.

The markets in which it works — new reactor build, performance enhancement of the reactor fleet, support to the UK’s strategic nuclear deterrent, current and future nuclear submarine programmes and decommissioning and clean up — are all benefiting from significant investment in major, long-term future work programmes.

As a result AMEC is looking for more than 500 people this year and plans for similar growth in subsequent years. The company is looking for a wide range of experience, from recent graduates through to strategic appointments, and also welcomes applicants from outside the nuclear sector, such as petrochemical, process, oil and gas, rail, aerospace, and pharmaceutical industries.

‘Opportunities exist for both permanent and contract staff at various locations throughout the UK,’ said Pauline Doran, resourcing manager for AMEC’s nuclear business. ‘These locations include our head office in Knutsford as well as Warrington in Cheshire, Thatcham, Berkshire, Gloucester and Cumbria. To support our continued strong growth, we have also just opened a new office in Glasgow.

‘If you join us you get unrivalled opportunity to work at the forefront of an industry that makes daily headlines and is benefiting from a global renaissance.’

AMEC is seeking high-calibre professionals, across a range of disciplines and specialist areas, including electrical, instrumentation and control, safety case, mechanical engineering, physicists, and project, programme and asset management.

‘As part of a FTSE 100 company we want people who will make a real difference to our business and that of our clients,’ said Clive White, vice-president of the nuclear business.

‘There are opportunities to work on projects around the world, including Canada, Europe and South Africa, as well as in the UK. We are looking for people who will thrive on technical and business challenges and with our support develop their skills and expertise to the maximum.’

Given the amount of activity and the level of recruitment taking place, it seems the nuclear industry is an attractive place to build an exciting, long-term career.

‘Anyone thinking of going into the nuclear industry should be advised to go for it, if they have the ability,’ said the HSE’s Britten.

‘As well as much demand and the prospect of developing a long-term career they will also gain some very transferable skills — though the industry will doubtless be keen to fight to keep them.’