Nuclear skills: challenges and opportunities

8 August 2017

We speak to Jean Llewellyn from the National Skills Academy for Nuclear and other some industry stakeholders to gain perspective on the skills landscape in the UK and across Europe.

Jean Llewellyn was awarded an OBE in 2011 in recognition for her services to the energy industry. She is a prominent figure on the nuclear skills agenda and is well respected and held in high esteem throughout industry and government.

Europe has 185 operating reactors, 15 reactors under construction and 103 units that have been permanently shut down or are undergoing decommissioning, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

In some countries, nuclear power is declining, like Germany where they put the nuclear programme on hold post-Fukushima. In others, such as France, it is more stable and slightly growing. And there are new to nuclear countries in Eastern Europe, like Poland, where nuclear is growing. As a result, we are seeing quite a change in skills demands and needs.

There is quite a different skills profile across Europe, but everyone is facing similar challenges such as ageing workforce and lack of diversity.

What is happening now is more collaboration and joint working. NSAN is working on a European project called ANNETTE looking at skills transferability across Europe. From a UK perspective, we have a skills and competency management system called NS4P. We are looking to see if we could use this system as a basis for transferring skills across Europe. We are also working with the French organisation INSTN to look at a joint system for hallmarking training programmes in the UK and France, as well as other projects.

Key challenges

A big issue is a need for increased diversity. In the UK, the nuclear workforce is about 22% female. This mix needs to improve going forward.

Also, the UK or any of the countries with established nuclear programmes tend to have an ageing workforce. People usually enter nuclear as an apprentice or graduate and stay in the industry for their whole career.

At the other end of the spectrum, countries looking to develop a new nuclear programme e.g. Poland face a different challenge – how to start from scratch to develop a skilled nuclear workforce. With some countries – Germany and others – stopping nuclear operations, this provides a pool of skilled workers for states looking to build new reactors. The picture of where the skilled workforce is located is going to start moving into newer areas in Eastern Europe.

The main roles that have been identified for potential skills shortages in the latest UK report are nuclear safety case preparation, C&I engineers, reactor operators, site inspectors (regulators), project planning and control, commissioning engineers, electrical engineers, emergency planning, quality assurance, chemists and subject matter experts. Subject matter experts are the future nuclear specialists, which take many years to develop. We used to have a Nuclear Industrial Partnership Project working with Dalton at Manchester and the National Nuclear Laboratory to develop subject matter experts of the future. That initiative involved very detailed training and development, with secondments at various sites across the industry. Funding has now ended, but we are hoping the programme can continue as part of the nuclear sector deal.

A similar challenge is knowledge management and retention. We have a highly skilled workforce in their late 50s and early 60s with deep knowledge of the plant and the sites around the UK. Transferring this knowledge to a new generation is a huge challenge. Most companies do something on an individual basis, but there may be a chance to do something collectively across the industry.

Another issue the industry faces is in the ‘30-40’ age-bracket, where it needs to attract skilled engineers and scientists from other sectors. The nuclear industry has a good inflow of new blood and experts, but in the middle bracket, there is  a shortage of suitably qualified and experienced personnel. These would be people that run nuclear sites in future. The industry should be looking to attract people from O&G and other experts that need to be ‘nuclearised’. NSAN has a suite of programmes called the Triple Bar Suite – introductions to nuclear courses that can help with this. We are also working with Aston University on a PGCert in nuclear. These are all programmes that people with existing skills can take to learn how to utilise their abilities in a nuclear context.

Transferability of skills across the sector is another challenging area. In the UK, Magnox is reducing the number of people that are working for them. Using a skills and competency management system such as NS4P people can assess skills against the nationally agreed competency framework, which enables movement between companies.

There is a real challenge regarding supply chain skills because they are all waiting for contracts. You can’t develop the workforce without a contract but can’t win a contract without a skilled workforce. The UK had a programme called Give2Gain, which gave companies access to matched funding from the government for skills development in return for promoting the STEM agenda. This initiative drove an increase in skills development across the nuclear sector. Funding has stopped, but we are looking to extend Give2Gain through the sector deal. The workforce can’t become proficient in a few months – most apprenticeships are three years. It is a slow process to build up skills, knowledge and behaviours. So action is needed now to be ready for the future growth in the nuclear programme.

Read the full feature with insight from EDF Energy, Nuvia, Westinghouse and others.

In April, the National Skills Academy Nuclear (NSAN) and France's Institut National des Sciences et Techniques Nucléaires (INSTN) agreed to work togehter on skills.

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