Berkeley reborn21 February 2018
An old nuclear research complex has been transformed into a college campus offering top-class training for future engineers and scientists, Deborah Ward explains.
Back in 2006, the empty labs, stores, offices and workshops next to Berkeley’s redundant nuclear power station in Gloucestershire were scheduled for demolition. Owned by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), some had already been razed to the ground. A handful were still in use.
Today, Gloucestershire Science and Technology Park is a unique educational enterprise, located alongside the River Severn and built around an old engineering hall that once served the country’s entire nuclear industry. It is the UK’s first nuclear decommissioning programme that has successfully brought a derelict site back into full community use, adapting existing buildings and now with state-of-the-art training facilities. Banks of modern lathes, milling machines and computer-controlled equipment – including 3D printers – line the workshops. A cyber security centre is also a main curriculum feature.
“This must be the best end result for the nuclear decommissioning process anywhere in the entire world,” says Andy Slaney, chief operations officer for South Gloucestershire and Stroud College (SGS), which led the re-development.
Community voices have championed the project for years. Penny Wride, chair of the Berkeley Site Stakeholder Group (SSG), said, “The Berkeley SSG has long seen the potential for redeveloping the Berkeley labs into a further education facility for the local area. The engineering centre is a fantastic example of putting the nuclear industry mantra of ‘recycle and re-use’ into practice. The campus will provide exciting opportunities for young people in Berkeley and beyond for many years to come and I’m delighted to see the SSG’s vision come to fruition.”
Students aged 14 and older can choose from a wide range of technical skills training, cyber security, academic or vocational qualifications. Nearby, business units are already being occupied by companies working on renewable and low-carbon technologies. The centrepiece is the cavernous engineering hall, with original features retained and classrooms or workshops built around the perimeter, giving a real sense of the past and looking out over the estuary.
In a further visible reminder of the site’s heritage, a small experimental reactor (long since closed) still sits on the campus. The zero-energy reactor never produced electricity and is no longer radioactive.
There are even plans to develop a hovercraft link, enabling students from south Wales and the Forest of Dean to cross the Severn in minutes. The nearest bridge is ten miles away.
The door officially opened for the first time to the first 100-plus students on 4 September. Students are expected to reach around 1000 in the next few years.
Evaluating the options
In the 1960s, Berkeley Centre, as it was known, was one of the UK’s three key research centres for the nuclear industry. About 750 staff worked at the labs, including 200 scientists and engineers, technicians, designers and administrative staff. At its peak, the power station next door had a workforce of 1750 people.
Over the next 20-plus years, the global appetite for nuclear power began to wane, and the associated research was no longer needed. The Centre emptied and decommissioning began of the many facilities that had been used for radiological experimentation, followed by demolitions and land cleanup.
The NDA took ownership when it was established in 2005, and began to oversee lifting of all the nuclear-related regulations that prevented the site from being re-used. Initial options were focused on wholesale demolition, with an estimated cost of around £8 million, and marketing the cleared land for business use. Chance conversations between the NDA, its land agents and expansion-minded college authorities crystallised into a vision. In 2015, the land and its remaining buildings were instead leased to SGS on a long-term basis.
The college, local regeneration partnerships, businesses and community interest groups collaborated to come up with funding and secured additional government backing for a University Technical College.
The NDA’s property manager Tony Smithers said: “This is, essentially, a site restored and mission accomplished. We are delighted that the vision of stakeholders, as expressed during consultations about site end states some years ago, will be realised. The potential for using these redundant facilities for educational purposes was not always obvious, however, and we did once draw up plans to demolish the buildings.
“The college’s plans are exciting and ambitious, supporting the UK drive to excel in science and engineering, while also building on Berkeley’s nuclear history. We look forward to seeing the first students welcomed onto the campus and enjoying their studies.”
Now, the campus is buzzing with excitement and the future is bright. The transformation has been warmly welcomed in the region, boosting the local economy and offering some of the very best training opportunities for young people.
Pete Barrett, SGS group property manager said, “Five ago, we weren’t sure it would all actually happen – it was a leap of faith. But today, it’s a dream delivered and we believe it’s a really special bundle. We’re re-using empty buildings, which provides savings for the public purse; we have space for the school to expand, we’re bringing skills and jobs into the local economy – and we can offer business space that the region desperately needs.
“We’ve probably held informal meetings with every local employer. There has been constant stream of interest and the community has been extremely supportive too. And we are still developing plans, such as the hovercraft proposal. We’re on the banks of the Severn but this could connect us to the Forest of Dean area and south Wales, while – we hope – bringing in tourists too.”
On offer are post-16 learning and on-the-job technical training, as well as undergraduate cyber research and units for high-tech industries.
Three educational establishments are now located on the campus.
South Gloucestershire and Stroud College, which offers engineering-based training and studies for 16-18-year olds. Its facilities include workshops, offices and project spaces and the former engineering hall, which has been completely renovated and some of its heavy-duty industrial equipment given a new lease of life. The newly named John Huggett Engineering Hall (named after the SGS College chair of governors, who was instrumental in delivering the vision) is a modern training environment for apprentices and other learners.
“We would never have been able to install equipment like this if we’d had to purchase from new, but it was already there, lying unused,” said Andy Slaney. “It is an incredible, exciting place for technical training and gives a real flavour of an industrial workplace.”
A state-of-the-art welding facility is also being developed to add skills training, using existing equipment and taking advantage of old assets – another resource that would have otherwise been beyond college means.
Alongside it is the University Technical College, which is part of the government’s programme for developing vocational skills from the age of 14 onwards. Linked with the University of Gloucestershire and a range of local businesses, its courses specialising in cyber security, digital technologies and engineering are influenced by employer requirements as well as academic disciplines.
Meanwhile, the University of Gloucestershire Cyber Security Centre has worked alongside the college to provide secure facilities for businesses and organisations working in cyber security. Seven zones include a conference suite, cyber training suite, demonstration zone with the latest technologies and an ‘accelerator’ zone for start-up and scale-up businesses working in cyber security.
Some of the business units are already occupied, by a biofuels research company and a modular housing development organisation that is working on a two-bedroom property clad with solar panels and its own battery pack.
Finally, and fittingly for a site with a history so closely associated with electricity generation, £4 million of funding has been allocated for a renewables research centre that will act as a catalyst for businesses involved in low-carbon and renewable technologies. Within the next few years, the science park could, as part of its energy mix, feature solar, air source heat pumps, biomass, tidal, liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), wind and batteries.
Deborah Ward is Corporate Communications Manager at the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority.