Skilling the next generation8 June 2017
The UK House of Lords Science and Technology Committee has been discussing issues relating to the development of new nuclear power plant construction in the UK. One of the issues that the Committee has been looking at has been a potential skills shortage throughout the industry. David Flin reports
As the UK develops new nuclear construction at locations around the country, including Hinkley Point, Moorside, Wylfa Newydd, and Oldbury, a number of issues are arising from the lack of nuclear construction in the country for the last two decades. One of the issues that the industry faces, and which the Committee took evidence on, is whether there are sufficient people with the necessary skills in the country.
If nuclear does develop as some of the projections show, then the UK has a significant skills shortage. That was the view expressed by Dr Richard Savage, Chief Nuclear Inspector for the Office of Nuclear Regulation (ONR). He said that there were a number of initiatives underway that were bearing fruit, and that these were addressing problems, but that they may not be sufficient to support new growth. He said that there has been some real movement in recent years, but that more would be needed.
Dr Andrew Simper, Technology and Strategy Director of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), said that if nuclear power in the UK expands as planned, then there is a big skills problem. The country does not have the skills, and is unlikely to be able to develop the skills to design new technology by itself.
The point was made that to attract young people into the industry, and bring about a development in the skill base, there was a need for a goal to provide motivation. Savage said that he had noticed that young people entering the industry didn’t say that they wanted to develop nuclear technology, but that they wanted to develop technology that would help combat climate change. It was important to be able to present a goal that attracts and inspires people. Technology was a means to an end, and not an end in itself.
In furtherance of this, the Committee raised the question as to whether the development of SMRs might prove to be a mechanism to inspire new entrants into the industry, through providing a vision of a way to combat carbon emissions. However, it also noted that the availability of skilled people at present made it hard to industry to develop this technology.
There has been some real movement recently. The National Skills Academy Nuclear has, according to Savage, been effective in providing skills, as have organisations within the industry and supply chain. Many have shown an innovative approach to developing a skill base. ONR has been training graduates and apprentices, which hasn’t been its traditional role, but it has been effective.
There has been a lack of coordination in this, however, and it is probably not sufficient to support major growth in the industry. Simper said that the NDA could not rely on the market to supply the skills that are needed, and that interventions are required. He also pointed out that working in R&D helps develop skills that can be used in industry, but that there shouldn’t be a reliance on using R&D as a training mechanism. He said that the work was sufficient to support technology that existed, but that it was not sufficient to enable new technology to be developed.
One area of concern that was raised with regard to significant new nuclear construction in the UK was in finding sufficient numbers of skilled people to act as inspectors and regulators. The main attraction to enthusing people to enter the industry came from the design and development of new ideas, and the construction of significant projects. The inspection and regulation of these was generally not seen as being so attractive. Potentially, the difficulty in getting sufficient regulators could prove to be a bottleneck for the development of the industry.
Xavier Mamo, Director R&D UK Centre of EDF Energy, said that the experience in France was that there was a lot of benefit to be gained from strong coordination of efforts and the creation of hubs of excellence. This ensured that excessive duplication of effort was avoided, and that it was possible to see easily where extra effort was required.
Jesse Norman, the UK Minister for Industry and Energy, said that the Government was, at the request of the nuclear industry, looking into the possibility of creating a Nuclear Sector Deal. This, he said, would bring two potential benefits. The first is potential cost savings in various areas, including skills training, as a result of collaborative efforts and combining resources. It also helps reduce risks of shortages in the supply chain.
The deal would look at maintaining skills in three areas. High end R&D, which is often about the development by a particular specialist and research team; there are what Norman described as the “bench skills that sit across the sector”; and there is recycling and reusing skills from elsewhere, in addition to bringing new talent in.
Norman pointed out that as old plants become decommissioned, that will bring a lot of skilled engineers back into the market.
He also said that developing skills was a strategic, long-term goal. The Research Council funds a programme to keep research skills flowing. The number of graduates has increased, although it is not yet known whether this will be sufficient to meet needs.
Norman said that the Government was looking carefully at what level of general skills would be needed by the nuclear industry, and was funding nuclear R&D extensively. He stated that there should not be any shortfall.
From the discussions, it was fairly clear that the industry sees a potential skills issue. However, one factor that was raised by the Committee was that it was possible that the situation might be alleviated by developments in automation and robotics, which are reducing the numbers of skilled workforce required. Whether that will be sufficient remains to be seen.