The UK’s nuclear skills shortage – going critical1 April 2008
The UK’s nuclear profession, says engineering consultancy Atkins, is suffering from a severe lack of trained graduates just when it most needs them, a situation brought on by the legacy of Chernobyl, the running down of building programmes and competition from sexier career choices. An imaginative new approach is needed, and quickly.
It is well known that the West is suffering a chronic and worsening engineering skills crisis. In the UK particularly, this is a major problem with the construction of new nuclear powered generation of between five and ten power stations being central to the government’s ‘green’ energy strategy of cutting CO2 emissions by 60% over the next forty years.
Whilst the West generally struggles, it is important to mention that France is a big exception to the rule – it has one of the largest nuclear power capabilities in the world owing to its ownership of a large proportion of the companies that own new-build power plants. Nuclear power has always been a key technology to France, and a very large percentage of its power is generated that way. This being so it is the only one of the Western countries not to be hit by the skills crisis.
Back in the UK, The Royal Academy of Engineering painted the picture starkly in its report last year: the number of Brits choosing engineering degrees is falling sharply and only half of those graduates actually enter the profession. But on an international level it’s a different story: for example in China the number of engineers with postgraduate degrees is ‘soaring’, according to a 2006 study from the US National Academy of Engineering.
British businesses are understandably looking to India, China, and South Africa to beat the indigenous skills shortage, with 48% recruiting from overseas in the last 12 months alone. These initiatives should be applauded, not criticised, as bringing talented people from India and China to the UK will only enhance competitiveness.
However, when it comes to nuclear engineering, transferring skills from abroad is not so easy. In this politically sensitive industry, security of knowledge is imperative and any weak points in a country’s nuclear strategy must remain confidential at all times. The industry must be very vigilant and protect sensitive information. It follows that screening tests of international nuclear engineers are intensive, and where possible, home nationals are preferred. With mobility of skills between countries such an issue, the UK must do all it can to decrease the skills gap it faces without relying on skills from abroad.
The legacy of Chernobyl
The skills gap first became apparent back in the 1980s, when nuclear power became a major target for environmental campaigners, and as its economic future was called into question, the industry lost much of its appeal as a career choice. The haunting pictures from Chernobyl became defining images of the era. In the nineties, nuclear power was privatised in the UK, and its long-term future appeared to be in serious doubt. Vocational training schemes began to close down in the early part of the decade. As the supply of new graduates dried up, the remaining nuclear workforce aged. Across the nuclear industry, senior people are now on the verge of retirement – just at the point when a nuclear renaissance is on the horizon, and their skills are most needed.
On 10 January the UK government gave the expected go ahead for a new nuclear building programme. There are three critical areas which Atkins believes both the government and private sectors need to consider.
• The private sector needs to start training more nuclear engineers. It is encouraging to see the National Skills Academy (NSA) for nuclear up and running. But it is hard to see how one relatively small agency can co-ordinate all the training which will be required in the next 20 years. The scale of the task is just too big. Atkins is one of the few companies to invest in its own Training Academy, providing it with a new crop of nuclear engineers every year. Not only can we can closely tailor the training to meet the needs of our customers but it also demonstrates to the trainee that Atkins is serious about the nuclear business, which will help with staff retention. I see initiatives like these as an essential adjunct to the good work of the NSA.
• To encourage private companies to invest in training, the second Energy Bill in the next Parliament needs to create a stable financial framework for new nuclear build. The government’s consultation document on the future of nuclear power states: ‘It would be for private sector energy companies to propose and fund the construction and operation of any new nuclear power stations, including meeting the full costs of decommissioning and full share of waste management costs.’
If the private sector is to lead the charge on the next generation, it needs legislation which provides a substantial, firm and long-term public commitment to nuclear power in the UK. With the harsh lessons from the new electricity trading arrangements introduced in 2001 being such a recent memory, the private sector will be hesitant to sign up to new nuclear without such a commitment.
• The profession of nuclear engineering needs a marketing facelift if it is to compete as an appealing career choice against the more obviously glamorous worlds of high finance and corporate law.
We need to think creatively about how the nuclear industry can appeal to today’s college entrants, who were born in the last year of the 1980s and would therefore not have been around during that turbulent decade. Global warming is the biggest anxiety of the age and the potential for nuclear power to play a role in tackling global warming is significant. Yet the nuclear industry underplays this message, and is not taking advantage of its latent appeal to students. Our television screens are full of upbeat adverts from utilities about the environmental benefits of their wind farm projects. The nuclear industry must find a way to drive home the same kind of upbeat message.
The energy business has always been at the centre of world affairs. Now that position is more central than ever before. We need to work harder at getting the message across to our best and brightest young people that, if you want to have a role in tackling the world’s biggest issues, the way to do it is to join the energy business, become a nuclear engineer.
Ivor Catto is an executive director of Atkins