Five new nuclear sites with as many as 12 new reactors are set to be built in the UK over the next decade. Does the sector have the required pool of skills to deliver the government’s ambitions? Binyamin Ali investigates.
The government has placed nuclear at the centre of its strategy aimed at shifting the UK towards lower-carbon energy.
Last year, nuclear accounted for 21 per cent of the UK’s energy mix. This was behind gas (43 per cent) and renewables (bioenergy, wind, solar and hydro – 23 per cent), but well ahead of coal (9 per cent).
At the start of 2018, the government committed to closing Britain’s eight remaining coal plants by 2025, with nuclear and wind power expected to make up a large part of the shortfall.
By 2030, the government’s goal is to increase nuclear’s share of the mix from 21 per cent to 35 per cent. The next decade will therefore be a significant one, as new-build projects receive approval and some ageing plants are decommissioned.
This will create opportunities for the industry’s supply chain, with steel and concrete specialists in particular set to benefit. Manufacturers of high-pressure seals, pumps and turbine rotors will be among those that see increased demand.
But what about the thousands of jobs this shift in the UK’s energy mix will create – is there a strong enough pool of talent available, supplemented by a pipeline of budding graduates?
The Home Office list of occupations that are in short supply features no fewer than 14 roles directly related to nuclear specialisms.
Employers trying to fill one of these roles are able to sponsor overseas candidates to come over if they are unable find a suitable candidate in the UK, or if a suitable overseas applicant does not have the right to work in the UK.
“We are actively using overseas staff for nuclear work both in the UK and other geographies”
Mark Liddiard, Mott MacDonald
This avenue can help address any immediate skills shortages facing the nuclear sector but it is not a viable long-term solution, says Nuclear Skills Strategy Group head of skills strategy Beccy Pleasant.
“If there was complete freedom of movement, we could just bring people in from other countries to fill some of those needs,” she says. “What we’re saying is [things are not] as flexible as we might like, so it makes sense to take steps to grow our own.”
This need to develop homegrown skills is why the NSSG was established, taking over responsibility from the Nuclear Industry Council’s skills workstream as the lead strategic skills forum for the sector. It is made up of representatives from employers, trade bodies and government departments responsible for nuclear development.
With as many as 12 reactors at varying stages of planning and development across five different sites – Hinkley, Sizewell, Wylfa, Oldbury and Moorside – the NSSG has a sizeable task ahead of it.
Hinkley Point C Oct 2017 9489
The challenge is clear: from a current workforce of around 87,000 people, the nuclear sector needs to increase this to more than 100,000 over the next six years.
“What we need to do on an annual basis is recruit or hire an additional 7,000 people. At the moment we achieve about 3,000,” Ms Pleasant says, although she is quick to reject any suggestion that this is a sector in crisis. “We have not yet been unable to move ahead with any of our nuclear activities because of a skills shortage,” she says.
Ms Pleasant’s sentiments are echoed by Mott MacDonald global practice leader for nuclear Mark Liddiard, who says the number of people available “is probably just about adequate” at the moment.
Accordingly, for now Mott MacDonald sees no need to make use of the Home Office’s overseas applicant sponsorship process. However, the company is looking to overseas talent for different reasons.
The company established an office in Bulgaria’s capital Sofia that is staffed by 10 Bulgarians. “There has been a large historic nuclear programme in Bulgaria where they have these six reactors at Kozloduy, so there is a good pool of Bulgarian nationals with significant nuclear experience and qualifications,” Mr Liddiard explains.
“We have set up that office with the deliberate view to support UK projects where we don’t need to use UK nationals, and to build a non-UK nuclear business as well. We are actively using overseas staff for nuclear work both in the UK and other geographies.”
As well as the number of technically experienced and qualified people on offer, “the rates we would pay are attractive compared with what we would pay in the UK,” Mr Liddiard adds, with the mix of UK and overseas staff helping meet client expectations on price.
Developing homegrown skills
There is little the NSSG can do about the relative cost of employing overseas talent, but the group is looking at a variety of ways it can ensure skills shortages do not hinder the industry’s growth.
“Having civil and structural skills is also very useful as only 20% of nuclear projects require nuclear expertise”
Ann Rostern, WSP
One of the steps the forum is taking is to raise awareness of an important distinction between specialist nuclear skills, and skills that can be used in nuclear. “About 80 per cent of the skills we need are actually reasonably generic skills for nuclear rather than nuclear skills – the same kinds of skills that are used in other industries,” Ms Pleasant says.
As a result, the sector can target engineers and technically trained individuals from other industries with transferable skills.
“Until very recently, the oil and gas sector was starting to reduce their resource,” Ms Pleasant continues. “Those people who have been trained in oil and gas could very easily be brought in with a top-up in the nuclear context. We’ve been developing transitional programmes to help people from other sectors come into nuclear.”
WSP has been using the same method to supplement its nuclear business with people from other parts of the company. “[We are] transferring non-nuclear construction and engineering professionals into the nuclear field,” says WSP associate director for nuclear Ann Rostern. “Having civil and structural skills is also very useful, as only 20 per cent of [work carried out on a] nuclear project requires nuclear expertise.”
Another solution the NSSG is working on is a level eight apprenticeship – equivalent to PhD level – which is headed up by the Institute for Apprenticeships. While there have so far been no level eight apprenticeships approved since the new model came into effect, the framework does allow for them to be created.
“It’s still at the very early stages, but that will hopefully bring in people who have finished their degrees and want to continue studying, but want to do that embedded in a workplace,” Ms Pleasant says.
One important factor that will attract people to the industry is the certainty of funding for the UK’s nuclear programme.
Britain is behind only China in terms of its new nuclear pipeline. It has, of course, been far from plain sailing, with Hinkley Point C suffering years of delays before finally getting off the ground. After Hinkley, Horizon’s Wylfa plant is closest to reaching construction stage but might need as much £5bn from government to get going.
Meanwhile the NuGeneration project in Moorside has faced significant uncertainty over the past 18 months.
French energy company Engie sold its 40 per cent stake in Moorside to JV partner Toshiba, which had suffered a series of writedowns and seen its US nuclear business, Westinghouse, file for bankruptcy.
In December South Korean nuclear giant Kepco was chosen to replace Toshiba as Moorside’s developer. The deal has still not been finalised, though reports suggest it will be completed later this year.
NuGen Moorside power plant Cumbria CGI
Despite this development, these difficulties on one of the government’s flagship projects have threatened to dent confidence in the UK’s long-term nuclear pipeline.
Away from the new-build programme, further uncertainty has emerged this year due to the looming closure of Sellafield’s Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (Thorp).
With roughly a third of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority’s £3bn annual budget coming from overseas reprocessing contracts carried out at Sellafield, there have been no details from government as to how the shortfall will be filled.
“There may actually be a funding constraint in the NDA estate as a result of that, and I would guess a lot of people will see new-build as the alternative for their skills,” Mott MacDonald’s Mr Liddiard says. “The pace of work is quicker, funding is potentially greater and generally younger people would rather build something new than necessarily decommissioning old stuff.”
Striking a skills balance
If Mr Liddiard’s predication is correct and there is lopsided recruitment towards certain professions in the nuclear sector, it could reinforce a common misconception and pose problems for the government’s decommissioning plans.
“People don’t think [decommissioning] is the future and as a result we’re not getting the required number of graduates,” WSP’s Ms Rostern says. “But as more sites now go offline, there will be a great deal of work there.”
“EDF don’t compete with Horizon or with NuGen… they recognise that if they compete, all they are going to end up doing is escalating salaries and making nuclear more expensive”
Beccy Pleasant, NSSG
Of the UK’s 15 reactors generating energy, six are due to be taken offline in 2025 and decommissioned thereafter.
With a seven-year headstart and an industry used to working years in advance, the NSSG’s Ms Pleasant is unfazed. “One of the things with the nuclear environment that is slightly different is that we’ve got a long plan that takes time,” she says. “If you think about the decommissioning activities, which are a big chunk of those skills, we have got a 100-year plan.”
Another quirk of the industry Ms Pleasant is keen to point out is the level of collaboration that exists among the major nuclear companies. “[For example], EDF don’t compete with Horizon or with NuGen or anyone else – they recognise that if they compete, all they are going to end up doing is escalating salaries and making nuclear more expensive,” she says.
For the moment, it seems the nuclear industry is just about able to handle its current skills demand.
However, as momentum of the government’s ambitious programme increases over the next couple of years, the nuclear sector’s ability to plan ahead will be put to the test.