The renaissance in nuclear energy is regarded as excellent news for the industry but it does not come without its challenges. One of the major ones being that of skills supply – the demand for talent is high and recruitment is becoming ever more challenging
CONSCIENTIOUS young people have recognised a real opportunity: get into nuclear energy now given its numerous career options, plenty of headroom and opportunities for well-remunerated jobs. The nuclear industry has the potential to ultimately make a significant difference to tackling climate change, sustainable development and giving many nations access to a clean, green energy source.
In early 2008 the HM Government reached its conclusion on the way forward for UK energy policy. This has been the culmination of well over 12 months of debate and public engagement. The Government’s newly revised position on energy policy follows on from its ambitious policy in 2003 to create a low-carbon economy through the expansion of renewable technology. At the time the policy was welcomed from the perspective of targeting a 60% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050. However it was widely challenged on a number of grounds such as too high a dependency on imported gas, reliance on nascent renewable technology and parking the issue of nuclear by stating the desire to “keep the nuclear option open” but not actively pursuing it.
Since the 2003 Energy White Paper most of the criticisms have been vindicated; there has been a slower than envisaged up-take of renewable technologies, concern over energy security from importing overseas gas coupled with political instabilities, further evidence on global climate change and rising prices of fossil fuels. This has resulted in nuclear energy being re-entertained by the Government as a technology that should be deployed as part of a balanced and diversified energy mix.
Hence the 2008 Energy Policy has been widely accepted, so much so that
"The nuclear industry has suffered over the past few decades and been unable to attract a large, high quality talent pool which has resulted in what many refer to as skills crisis."
Secretary of State John Hutton wishes to accelerate new nuclear build as quickly as feasible. Although the Government wishes not to place targets on the percentage of nuclear generation capacity, the commonly shared perspective was one of “replace nuclear with nuclear”. This would equate to about 20% nuclear capacity or 10GWe. However, given the dynamics of the changing energy climate (greater concern over climate change, increasing fuel prices etc), it is generally regarded within the industry that double the capacity is now more welcomed by the Government – John Hutton has stated nuclear energy should provide a very significant fraction of future energy needs in the UK.
The deployment of nuclear reactors is however not a short-term process. The first stations will not be on-line for another 10 years allowing for the regulators to issue licensability statements giving approval for various reactor systems, the public inquiry process and then construction. Currently there are three reactor systems that are being assessed by the UK regulatory authorities; these are the Westinghouse AP1000, the Areva European Pressurised Water Reactor and the General Electric ESBWR. These are very large plants producing between 1100 and 1600MWe but are costly to build at approximately £2bn each. Although over their 60 year design life, they can prove highly economic yielding a levelised generation of approximately 3p/kWh making them highly competitive with the cheapest form of fossil fuel generation (even without taking into account any future carbon tax which could make nuclear even more economic).
Without doubt a renaissance in nuclear energy is starting with countries such as UK, Finland, France, South Africa, Canada and the US at the fore-front. Other countries are likely to follow such as Australia, Italy, Holland, Switzerland, Sweden, Belgium, Thailand, Mexico, Argentina etc. Combined with countries that have continued to expand their nuclear capacity such as India, Japan, China, South Korea, Taiwan and others it only leaves very few countries isolated in their opposition to nuclear (Ireland, Austria, Spain and Germany).
Whilst this nuclear renaissance is regarded as excellent news for the nuclear industry it does not come without its challenges. One of the main ones being that of skills supply coupled with a supportive research and development base.
The nuclear industry has suffered over the past few decades and been unable to attract a large, high quality talent pool which has resulted in what many refer to as a skills crisis. This has come about as a result of a combination of things:
• Nuclear dropping out of favour during the 1980s as a competitive form of generation given costly projects, over-runs, uncertainty in waste management and of course the Chernobyl accident.
• A general move away from science and engineering degree courses by young people with those that do take such subjects having wider career opportunities in a variety of fields such as media, accountancy, consultancy etc.
• Governments moving away from investing in nuclear research in academia which provided a good entry route for young people into the industry.
• An ageing workforce with a high proportion of staff approaching retirement in the next 5 years.
However, recently conscientious young people have recognised a real opportunity – get into new nuclear build now with numerous career options, plenty of headroom and opportunities for well-remunerated jobs in a dynamic industry that can ultimately make a significant difference to tackling climate change, sustainable development and giving developing nations access to a clean, green energy source.
So what’s now happening in the UK academic sector to respond to the need for a skilled workforce, the research to underpin the industry and an increasing desire by young people to enter the nuclear industry?
There are a number of universities that have retained or are developing nuclear capability such as Imperial College, Leeds, Sheffield, Lancaster, UCLAN and others. Over the past few years (even whilst policy was against nuclear) The University of Manchester put the subject right at the centre of its strategic aims by establishing the Dalton Nuclear Institute as the vehicle to drive forward its ambitions – namely to become a world-leading academic institution by 2015 and ranked within the top 25 universities world-wide.
Nuclear strengths at the University of Manchester include areas such as:
• Materials performance: Structural steels, fuel and graphite
• Radiochemistry and Radiation Sciences
• Modelling & computation
• Reactor technology
• Geological disposal
• Fusion research
• Radio-biological research
• Dosimetry & epidemiology
• Policy and regulation
• Stakeholder issues and decision analysis
• Nuclear physics
• Decommissioning engineering
• Environmental life cycle assessment
One particular area relevant to the nuclear renaissance is reactor technology and whilst the University has existing expertise (materials performance, computational fluid dynamics, applied nuclear physics structural engineering etc), its plans are going further with the proposed establishment of the Centre for Nuclear Energy Technology (C-NET). This is intended to help put back onto the map academic reactor capability to support the needs of the public and private sectors as well as other stakeholders in all aspects related to reactor systems.
The investment in C-NET over the next 5 years is £25m in new academic appointments, experimental facilities, computational hardware and software and access to overseas infrastructure. Key appointments will be made at the Professorial, senior researcher and senior lecturer level initially in nuclear fuel technology, reactor physics and nuclear data, nuclear materials irradiation, thermal hydraulics and structural mechanics. Following these appointments others will follow within the next 3 years in areas such as safety performance, water chemistry, graphite, materials modelling as well as less-traditionally nuclear engineering subjects such as social science areas such as risk perception, environmental impact, socio-economics, project delivery etc.
The research in underpinned by education and training programmes designed to attract young people. These start with the general undergraduate degrees in engineering and the physical sciences which have an array of nuclear options, through the NTEC MSc programme in nuclear science and technology, to research degrees including PhD and the Nuclear Engineering Doctorate. This approach of conventional undergraduate education (sciences, maths, engineering) followed by more nuclear relevant training at the MSc and PhD is much preferred by industry rather than recruiting young people with nuclear engineering Bachelor level degrees. A much more rounded approach is desirable compared to specialisation which can come later.
C-NET will be a distributed centre across the academic schools at Manchester (Engineering, Physics, Chemistry, Business etc) but also link with other academic institutions in the UK. A Director will also be appointed to head up the Centre with a responsibility of integrating capability across different academic disciplines as well as working closely with the Dalton Nuclear Institute itself, the UK National Nuclear Laboratory, customers and funding agencies.
The investment includes funding from The University of Manchester, private sector sources and also proposed support from the Northwest Development Agency (NWDA) of £4.2m following endorsement for C-NET from the Northwest Science Council.
The concept for the Centre has been developed over the past few years based on assessment of the skills profile and R&D required to support new nuclear build and other aspects of the industry.
The Centre will provide a number of benefits:
A skills pipeline of young individuals to join the industry – A means of increasing the skills pool here is through universities having research and development projects that “hook” young peoples’ interest and imagination. Currently, future reactor physicists for the proposed new plants are probably still deciding which GCSEs to take! There is already growing interest from young people in the nuclear industry but it can be difficult to identify academic supervisors since Universities have lost staff over the past few years. An active research base can re-establish the teaching base which can then provide opportunities for graduates to pursue further studies at the MSc and PhD level or simply provide awareness of the industry at the undergraduate level through electives as part of the Bachelors degree programme. Without the academic research capability, the undergraduates cannot be taught and fewer will seek career opportunities in the industry.
Research required to support stakeholder’s needs – there is an ongoing need for various stakeholders to conduct R&D on reactor systems. This can be to help improve operational performance, predictability of lifetime extension, reduce costs or most importantly to help underpin the safety case. There is a need for a mechanistic understanding of the underpinning science rather than an empirical one in order to give the necessary assurance and confidence in operations. Evidence from the US has shown that whilst standardised nuclear systems are deployed “fleet style” there is still an active and ongoing R&D support programme. The US Electric Power Research Institute spends approximately $100m per year on ongoing research to support the safe and cost effective operation of its customers’ nuclear plants.
Training and education – there is an ongoing need for continued professional development requirement within the nuclear industry. This can be provided through MSc modules in specific topics or bespoke education courses in any of the technical subjects of C-NET.
The sectors within which C-NET will operate are as follows:
Continued operations – There is an active programme associated with continued operations and lifetime extension of existing UK systems particularly the AGR stations. Here there are ongoing R&D activities associated with graphite, high temperature materials performance, C&I systems. There is also a skills training and ongoing recruitment requirement to support these systems over the next 10 to 15 years.
Support deployment of new nuclear build – Whilst the systems may be global standardised products from international vendors, there is still a need for an authoritative technical expertise possessing a deep understanding of specific aspects of advanced reactors to support their deployment. Such a capability is not built up through reading text books and brochures on advanced systems, but actually working on them such as by conducting supportive research.
Current and future national requirements on naval propulsion – the UK is one of few countries that utilises nuclear power as a propulsion mechanism for its strategic deterrent submarines. The Ministry of Defence has currently commissioned a new fleet of submarines and is also assessing options for next generation propulsion systems. Combined with an ongoing programme of ensuring predictability of operation and lifetime management of the existing fleet means there is significant interest in research subjects such as reactor physics, structural integrity, materials performance.
UK involvement in international activities on advanced reactor systems – the UK is an active member of leading global forums such as the G8 and clearly wishes to play a role on international efforts associated with energy policy and sustainable development. If the UK wishes to retain a seat at the table in such international policy making activities, its capability in understanding advanced reactors and fuel cycles is one of the things it can bring. Any country taking sustainable development seriously in the mid 21st Century will need expertise in nuclear technology. The UK is well placed with a recognised pedigree in nuclear fuel cycle technology, its intention to deliver Generation III reactors in a competitive electricity market without Government subsidy and paradoxically its lack of vendor status means it can act impartially and independently of any preferred technology.
In summary there is a significant opportunity for academia in supporting the nuclear industry from both a research and teaching base. For young people science and engineering careers are well remunerated, exciting and challenging. This doesn’t mean young people should look to study nuclear engineering at the undergraduate Bachelors level. The industry is very clear that it wants good quality well rounded graduates in science and engineering subjects. The so-called nuclear “veneer” can then be developed through on-the-job training, continued professional development and higher level degree programmes. The University of Manchester already coordinates national MSc and Engineering Doctorate programmes. Through the Dalton Nuclear Institute at The University of Manchester the NTEC (Nuclear Engineering Technology Consortium) MSc brings together 11 of the UK’s universities that are involved in nuclear to provide a modular taught MSc course; with each partner university teaching in its respective area of expertise. In addition at the Doctoral level, The University of Manchester in partnership with Imperial College offers an Engineering Doctorate programme which a combination of PhD with business taught courses similar in an MBA and based approximately 70% in industry.
With the prospects associated with a global nuclear renaissance, the Centre for Nuclear Energy Technology will be very well placed to actively contribute to this exciting industrial sector.