The UK ABWR and the 100 year time horizon5 January 2016
James Varley talks to Greg Evans of Horizon about skills development
Nuclear new build is, to say the least, a very demanding business, requiring persistence, determination, a very long-term perspective and extremely capacious pockets, among many other virtues. But for UK nuclear plant developer, Horizon, there are two further complications: introducing a technology, the boiling light water reactor, that is unknown in the UK; and the building from scratch of an entirely new nuclear operating company.
Horizon, originally set up in 2009 as a joint venture of two utilities, RWE and E.On, was purchased by Hitachi in 2012. The new nuclear operating company would effectively become a client of reactor vendor Hitachi-GE, eventually owning and operating two 1350MWe advanced boiling water reactors (ABWRs) at the Wylfa site on the Isle of Anglesey, off the north-west coast of Wales, and subsequently two more planned for Oldbury in England.
The person tasked with creating this new entity is Greg Evans, who joined Horizon as operations director for Wylfa Newydd in the summer of 2015.
In fact, he sees the creation of a new nuclear operating company from nothing as just as much of an opportunity as a challenge. For example rather than adapting an existing organisation and its culture it enables a business to be built that is "fit for purpose in the 21st century", with an emphasis on such qualities as openness, transparency, personal accountability and collaborative approach, with a workplace environment that is attractive to young people and can engage them.
He also points that Horizon are not starting with absolutely nothing, but are building on the "great connections they already have with others in the industry", including other BWR operators and organisations such as WANO, INPO, EPRI and BWR owners groups. Nuclear is a "sharing industry", Greg believes, so there is plenty of scope for developing relationships and exchanging experience and good practice. "We are not doing this on our own."
Greg is an American by birth but has very strong links to Wales and is particularly drawn to the Isle of Anglesey, where he lives and where all three children (9, 12 and 19), have been born. His father and grandfather were both Welsh, emigrating to the USA in the 1930s.
“I have always been nuclear", he says, joining the US navy when he was 17 and working on submarines for about six years, then going into US commercial nuclear power in the late 1970s.
He emigrated to the UK in 1988, when construction of the Sizewell B PWR was about to start, and was on the Sizewell B construction team for about ten years, because, with a US nuclear navy background, the PWR was "my technology", he says.
He left Sizewell B to join Magnox, because "my aspiration was always to get back to Anglesey", and Anglesey happens to be the location of the Wylfa Magnox station.
Following a "brief detour" to Bradwell as shift supervisor, providing an opportunity to familiarise himself with gas cooled technology, he went to Wylfa, becoming station director in 2001 and also director of the Trawsfynydd site in Snowdonia.
After some eight years at Wylfa he became director of nuclear and renewables at Centrica, joining the company on the day it signed a joint venture deal with EDF to build new nuclear stations in the UK. After careful consideration of the "ins and outs", under Greg's leadership, the decision was taken by Centrica in 2013 to opt out of nuclear new build, although retaining its 20% share in EDF's operating UK nuclear fleet. "When we opted out of nuclear new build they gave me offshore wind", Greg says, a role which included developing, constructing, commissioning and operating the Lincs and LID (Lynn and Inner Dowsing) wind farms.
When the opportunity arose to move to Horizon he "jumped at it". He believes Anglesey is a perfect site for a nuclear power plant for "lots of reasons, technical, social, economic". He is also keen to emphasise the long term benefits of Wylfa Newydd to the people of Anglesey and implications for the "North Wales corridor.
The focus at the moment is reaching financial close, by developing a project that is investable and provides long-term prospects for investors to secure a return on their investment over the life of the station.
A challenge shared by other nuclear new build developers in the UK, EDF and NuGen.
Horizon hopes to have in place all necessary requirements to approach investors completed by mid 2018, with a final investment decision by early 2019 and start of power generation in the first half of the 2020s.
“That may sound like a long time, but there's a lot to do", says Greg. "You start to think about the pipeline of things you need to create to look investable at the point of FID but also look like a viable entity going forward. You start thinking about supply chain activities, what you need to be doing now to generate interest. You start to think about demographics and wider issues such as fuelling a revival of manufacturing industry in the north of the UK. In the Wylfa case you even start thinking about the Welsh language and its long term survival.
At the Wylfa Magnox station (which ceased generation at the end of 2015) about 95% of the workforce lived locally and 81% spoke Welsh, much higher percentage than for Anglesey as a whole, about 56%, Greg notes.
The welfare of the Welsh language is a very important issue for the local people and "we want to enhance that, in particular emphasising the long time scales and long term commitment that a nuclear project entails."
Also on Horizon's agenda is the "people pipeline, recruitment and skills challenges and opportunities in the North Wales corridor", says Greg.
“You want the majority of people to be locally based, not needing to travel far, so you start thinking about the education pipelines, at which stage you get involved with STEM opportunities for young people. You start thinking about engagement with local colleges and universities."
Horizon can already point to an impressive number of initiatives taken in this area, for example:
- sponsorship of the Physics and Technology of Nuclear Reactors masters programme at the University of Birmingham;
- MoUs with local educational establishments, Grwˆp Llandrillo Menai (2014) and Bangor University (January 2015);
- on-going support for the local Cwmni Prentis Menai apprenticeship scheme (£450,000 to date);
- work with Coleg Menai on design and development of engineering apprenticeships as well a variety of training courses and programmes (e.g, re-skilling & up-skilling from existing nuclear);
- planning of the Horizon apprenticeship scheme, with launch scheduled for September 2016, plus an Anglesey-based apprenticeship lead already in place; Horizon graduate scheme underway, with new cohort just taken on;
- establishment of formalised strategy for engagement with schools, with increasing levels of activity, especially in relation to STEM promotion, and an Anglesey-based educational co-ordinator in place; and work with both UK and Welsh governments on the development of the National College for Nuclear and a Welsh 'hub' within this.
Is there a skill gap?
Nevertheless, Greg doesn't believe there is a skills gap in the UK, even though conventional wisdom asserts there is, and it is a de rigueur topic for any UK nuclear gathering. Rather he thinks there is a demand gap. "I've never worked in an industry where skills shortage was a long-term issue. I've worked in areas where it has been difficult to get a particular type of craftsman, or, say, a reactor operator. But these are short term, recruitment, challenges, arising from not thinking ahead. Where there is prospective demand, the market adjusts, suppliers begin to take risks and start to prepare. The same goes for skills. In advance of FID we need to get into local schools, job centres, colleges and make everyone aware that demand is coming."
He points out that reactor operators in 2025 are probably 12-13 years old today, so 12-13 olds living on Anglesey are potential candidates, they "just don't know it yet...my job is to create the demand, the buzz, the potential opportunities that pupils, students, parents, teachers and even local government officials can get excited about."
Another key task, as he sees it, is to "demystify" nuclear, emphasising that there is no real difference between the skills required of craftsmen in, say, the rail industry, with those needed in a nuclear power station. The differentiator is "behaviours and the way we approach our work", he says. "We approach our work in the nuclear industry from the point of view of risk and our opportunities to minimise risk to as low as we possibly can in any way we can. Risk minimisation, independent verification, conservative decision-making. Those are the elements that convert a mechanical/electrical craftsman in somewhere like National Grid to a mechanical/electrical craftsman at a nuclear power station. It's realisation of the hazard, which in our case is nuclear and has real implications if it goes wrong. But just because you are working on the railways or for the post office doesn't mean you can't retrain, rethink, redevelop and reperform as a nuclear operator."
Horizon is progressing on two parallel paths, one focused on becoming shovel ready and then construction, with a time frame of the order of ten years, the other focused on operation, with the prospect of 800-900 permanent jobs over a much longer time frame, in the region of 100 years or so if you assume 60-80 year plant life plus 10-20 years decommissioning.
“We need to demonstrate to the local people that there really is a 100 year project being developed alongside the ten year construction project."