Nuclear skills development in the South West26 January 2021
The UK’s National College for Nuclear is embracing virtual reality and remote technology to train the future nuclear workforce. By Mary Payne
Above: The National College for Nuclear officially opened in 2018
THERE IS NO STOPPING SOME people. That is certainly the case with staff and students at the UK’s National College for Nuclear.
The coronavirus pandemic may have halted educational activity in schools, colleges and universities across the world — but here has been no slowdown in finding innovative ways to upskill for the nuclear industry.
Despite unprecedented challenges throughout 2020, the learning curve continued upwards at the National College for Nuclear South, based near EDF Energy’s emerging Hinkley Point C power plant in the South West of England.
“I’d like to think that we’re actually ahead of the curve,” says Paul Goss, who heads the Southern hub of the National College for Nuclear.
He adds, “We could see lockdown was coming so we took early action to ensure our apprentices’ training did not miss a beat. We were well versed in online learning and Zoom, Google classroom, Microsoft Teams, Chromebook and other consumer technology were part of everyday life for our apprentices 12 months before everyone was grappling with it.
“We’d conducted consumer technology research and we’ve been innovating which meant there were no concerns moving from classroom based to online.
“With lockdown on the horizon, that early move to online learning was agreed with EDF, so that their residential apprentices could return home safely before restrictions kicked in.”
According to Goss, staff and students adapted to the new learning environment “like the proverbial ducks to water” and they were supported by the college with a £5.5-million investment in upgraded IT equipment.
“We were really pleased with the transition, but the litmus test was the practical work, where apprentices have to get stuck in and get their hands dirty,” Goss continued. “With the best will in the world, you can’t dismantle a pump online and so we had to think innovatively. They came in where it was essential but then went back to the workplace and we’d stream live workshops into the employer’s workplace.
“We’ve got apprentices within the workplace with equipment they can practice on, and we’re teaching them live by beaming direct into their workplace.
“Now we use virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality — to practice and rehearse tasks. They can go into an augmented reality workshop to perform, for example, lifting operations that can be practised safely before doing it in the real world.
“Equally, where you have radioactive sources that we could never have on site because they are dangerous, apprentices can safely practice waste management techniques and rescue scenarios in a virtual world.”
The college’s use of VR to simulate the nuclear environment has been so impressive that it beat some of the best-known brands in the world to win a prestigious Semta award for Skills Innovation of the Year.
They have been doing things differently at the National College for Nuclear ever since the government was persuaded to establish its Southern hub near the Somerset town of Bridgwater. It took a quiet word at a nuclear industry event with then UK Energy Minister, Matt Hancock — who is these days in the thick of the COVID crisis as Health Secretary, to mention that a location near Hinkley Point C was eminently sensible. That got the ball rolling on the southern hub, based at Bridgwater and Taunton College, while its northern counterpart emerged at Lakes College in Cumbria.
NCfN is a joint venture between Bridgwater & Taunton College, Lakes College, University Centre Somerset, the Universities of Bristol and Cumbria, EDF Energy and Sellafield Ltd.
The nuclear industry is expected to need up to 100,000 new employees over the next decade. The NCfN’s high- level nuclear curriculum, range of qualifications and progression routes to jobs, underpin this predicted growth. Its training programmes and qualifications are designed to meet the needs of the industry, from entry- level programmes for school leavers and apprenticeships to professional development courses and degree-level qualifications, validated by the University of West England in nearby Bristol.
There are now more than 300 students following 30 full-time and apprenticeship courses who are on track for a career in the nuclear industry.
The centre also delivers specialist short courses to over 200 adults per year.
“One of [NCfN]’s underpinning sentiments and probably most successful was the creation of content that gave parity to non-academic learners,” says Stefan Cecchini, who led NCfN before joining French company Framatome UK as business development manager.
“We asked ourselves this question: ‘How do you capture all of that talent without them having to pass A-level maths and go to university to study an engineering degree?’
“The answer was to stop putting them in a classroom, lining them up in front of a whiteboard and telling them to solve an equation. It’s not just what, it’s about how and why. It’s teaching from the inside out.
“That is the differentiator — a driving force in the whole project. It aimed to capture that contingent of learners who would [encounter] prejudice because they couldn’t pass an exam, so might not fulfil their potential to be the most superlative engineers,” Cecchini adds.
The facilities at the National College for Nuclear show it’s about hands-on learning. The college boasts a licensed environment you would expect to see on a fully licensed nuclear site anywhere in the UK, including security and safety culture behaviours developed with employers, right down to holding handrails.
It is not timetabled so that “at ten o’clock you’re going to do your maths lesson and then at 11 stop doing maths and move onto science and so on. The curriculum is more of a homogenised learning environment,” Goss says.
“We truly facilitate the learning. We aren’t lecturing or dictating what they need to know. We are posing real world industry problems and the students solve those problems within groups.”
Maths, for example, is treated as tool to understand the flow of fluid through a series of pipes, with students told to view it critically or abstractly to probe and understand from a different perspective.
There is also an emphasis on teamwork that is key to the success of projects like Hinkley Point C.
“Traditionally in colleges you have mechanical engineers sitting with other mechanical engineers doing mechanical engineering,” Goss says, but “We work in inter- disciplinary groups so we have mechanical, electrical, project controllers and digital engineers all teaming up like they would in the workplace.
“We mix them up like you would in a real project and challenge them to come together to solve problems. That breeds key behaviours — safety, communication, teamwork, leadership and problem-solving creativity, rather than everyone being passive learners.”
The result is an animated learning environment, revolving around equipment, to enable apprentices to make the grade and secure qualifications.
“On a typical day, you will see a very vibrant session where students are all up on their feet working and interacting with each other,” Goss says. “We have whitewalls within our classroom full of scribbles and formulas written all over glass panels in the corridors. We’ve got a flow rig which is a real bit of plant, with pipes and heat exchangers the students work on. We set a task on that flow-rig and they all have individual tasks depending on their discipline. We’ll have a project controller and mechanical engineer working on the pipe work, with control engineers working on the control side of the pump.
“You end up with a very engaged group working together on a project, people doing their own bits of work for the project, with an eye constantly on the team goal.”
He adds, “We’ve successfully moved away from passive learning which means you don’t have to sit in a three-hour maths exam to become an engineer.”
When the National College for Nuclear opened in February 2018, it was heralded as a prime example of ‘industrial strategy in action’ by Stuart Crooks, EDF Energy’s Hinkley Point C Managing Director, who promised it would support the “new nuclear renaissance in Britain”. Fast forward almost two years and NCfN is achieving its goals.
“We’re seeing more oven-ready engineers coming out the other end than we had before,” says Cecchini, who is also vice-chair of the Nuclear South West public-private cluster. “They’re clearly aligned to the industry and working practices while they’re learning so they become useful a lot more quickly after enjoying more satisfaction and engagement while doing so.
“Many years ago, I remember some graduate engineers came to a workshop and they were very clever but potentially dangerous in the workplace. They didn’t understand that rotating equipment could take an arm off! Now they aren’t coming out so green any more because they know how to take something apart and put it back together again. As well as learning the appropriate content, they’re immersed in the culture of a heavily regulated industry which means integration into the profession a lot easier.
“That’s why the NCfN is so important to the industry. If you ride a motorcycle, you go to the person who you know will tune it exactly as you want. The same applies to employers and the college. Tuning shop, finishing school, call it what you want, it’s a vital cog in the nuclear machine.”
Author information: Mary Payne, Skills for Nuclear Workforce Development Manager – Nuclear South West