The Dounreay nuclear complex on the windswept north coast of Scotland was built as an experimental fast breeder and materials testing site. It has seen spent fuel reprocessing come and go, as well as the beginning and end of UK fast breeder reactor technology.

Decommissioning has been ongoing at the site for several years, with unique challenges in many areas, such as the destruction of liquid metal coolant and other unprecedented legacy waste issues like the site’s waste shaft.

Obtaining the right skills for the decommissioning programme involves a number of different initiatives starting from school level interaction and further education right through to professional development of existing staff. Apprenticeships, school and higher education, and STEM work are just a few of the many processes contributing to the training picture for decommissioning this complex and challenging site.


Since 1955, Dounreay has trained apprentices as part of its approach to staffing the site. Since then, some 1100 apprentices have been recruited.

In 2016, Dounreay had 38 apprentices: ten in first year; eight in second year; nine in third; and 11 in fourth, of which two were part of an accelerated programme. The apprenticeship programme has close links with nearby North Highland College, which is part of the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI).

Some of the apprentices have been finalists and regional winners for the National Skills Academy Nuclear Awards and they have also been successful in the Scottish Craft Competition. Apprentices and graduates are also involved with STEM activities that promote science, technology, engineering and maths.

Dounreay apprentice Craig Gunn told NEI why he chose this career path. “I started looking into the Dounreay apprenticeship scheme around halfway through my fifth year in high school. I was aware of the apprenticeship scheme as I had attended local careers fairs and there was always someone from Dounreay to speak to or a Dounreay stand, as well as having close family members who had completed apprenticeships with Dounreay or were still going through one.

“Although I was partially aware of what the apprenticeships consisted of, it wasn’t until I properly looked into them that I saw what they had to offer. Over a four-year period you would be trained in one of three disciplines offered – electrical, mechanical or instrumentation – while working towards a higher national diploma (HND) in engineering systems at the same time, with the option to study at degree level if desired.

“University didn’t really appeal to me as I wanted to be hands-on, so getting trained in practical skills without compromising the educational side of things was perfect for me and this is exactly what the apprenticeship offered.”

Apprenticeships are a popular way of gaining skills and employment in the local area with the Dounreay scheme being particularly sought after.

Gunn commented: “I think I was successful in getting this apprenticeship because in both my application form and in my interview I feel like I managed to show that I had a desire to work for the company and that I had the school grades to make me an appropriate candidate for the job.

“I started my apprenticeship in 2014, so I have been an apprentice for two years. I will finish my training in 2018, so I am about halfway through my apprenticeship just now.”

He outlined what he sees as the benefits of the apprenticeship programme, saying: “The main benefits of being an apprentice at Dounreay over full-time education such as university include: getting paid while you learn, developing practical skills, developing working relationships, gaining experience in the workplace and avoiding student debts, all while getting the same level of education as someone at a university or college.

“For me there is no benefit of being at a university over this apprenticeship. The Dounreay apprenticeship appealed to me more than other apprenticeship schemes in my local area because of the opportunity to study up to HND level or higher as part of your apprenticeship, and the different career paths you can take when you finish the apprenticeship.”
Gunn said he would like to be employed as a craftsman once the apprenticeship is complete and continue to study for his degree.

“This will allow me to progress to a technician in my trade,” he explained. “I have always had plans to travel, so with Dounreay being decommissioned, when the end state becomes nearer and the time to leave arises, that is what I plan to do before moving on to another job.”

Sector-transferrable skills are important for Gunn, who is open-minded about which sector he will work in later. He said: “Working at Dounreay has given me a good insight into the nuclear industry but this doesn’t affect my preference for work after Dounreay.

“I feel working in different industries and becoming familiar with equipment and systems, and developing particular skills used by different industries would help me develop in my career, but I will look at all options and make a decision based on what best suits me at the time.

“I don’t have a strong preference for the nuclear sector or non-nuclear as the skills I have learned and will learn are recognised and transferrable into most industries.”

He is also open to moving abroad to work on operational nuclear sites.

The job market

Training manager Jillian Bundy told NEI about her experience of training the decommissioning workforce saying: “Generally the skills required for decommissioning are already in the job market, either from within the nuclear sector or other regulated industries. If individuals have the right transferable skills and experience, nuclear specific training can be provided.”

She went on to say that over the past two years, Dounreay has recruited 25 new graduates and continued: “None have specific nuclear experience, but are developing this ‘on the job’. We also recruited a number of trainee project controls staff. Many had no nuclear experience, but had a broad mix of skills and experience from other sectors and are now developing the specific process and nuclear skills for project controls roles.”

Bundy said that being in a remote area does provide recruitment challenges but pointed out that the area attracts many staff.
“Caithness can offer many advantages in terms of housing, outdoor activities and way of life. The technical challenges and experience gained from working at Dounreay are also a positive in attracting new recruits.

“A small number of specialist roles are harder to fill, however we generally have good responses to advertising campaigns and also utilise the supply chain to provide short-term resource enhancement.”

Of the many training and recruitment initiatives, Bundy highlighted the apprenticeship programme as being a key one.

She said: “Our apprentice training programme has always been highly successful in attracting young people from the local area and developing their core technical skills. Most go on to take up a range of craft and technician roles or continue their academic study to degree level with North Highland College UHI.

“Our graduate recruitment has also been very successful over the past two years, with the 25 young people currently on our development programme. Some had local connections and others relocated to Caithness from across the UK. Our graduates have a range of technical and business disciplines and are progressing well in a variety of roles. We hope that they will go on to fill roles at middle and senior management as the decommissioning programme progresses.”

Bundy said the skills development and recruitment initiatives each provide value independently, but are part of an overall strategy to fill gaps as experienced staff retire, ensuring continuity of skills to deliver the decommissioning programme.

“The range of skills required has evolved as the programme progresses; however core technical skills in engineering, science and environmental management are key. Project management skills have become more critical as we have transitioned from operations to decommissioning and we have also been required to train more operators in specialist roles,” she continued.

“Most of our training is delivered to national standards and follows recognised qualification routes. It is therefore highly transferable and attractive to other sectors.”

Professional development

Developing the professional skills that are particular to the task in hand is important in any industry. For chemical engineering graduate Liam Deeny, this means learning to apply chemical engineering to a project that aims to remove Dounreay’s “exotic” fuels that remained after the site’s reprocessing business ended.

Deeny described the route he took prior to being involved in the fuel work, saying: “I began taking an interest in engineering and science subjects in fourth year of high school before taking these subjects at higher exam level and then going on to study chemical engineering at the University of Strathclyde. After five years, I graduated with a master of engineering degree (MEng) and then began working at Dounreay as a graduate engineer last year.

“I chose to study chemical engineering because its core subjects – maths, chemistry and physics were subjects I took a keen interest in and performed well in at school.

“Solving problems was another area I enjoyed in school and knowing that engineers faced technical challenges on a daily basis motivated me to get the grades required of me to go onto further study.

“I also knew studying chemical engineering would not limit my career path as there are roles for chemical engineers across a range of industries – I carried out my fourth year design project on pharmaceuticals, had university placements in an oil and gas company and now work in the nuclear industry.”

Application of the knowledge gained from his degree has helped him solve technical problems encountered at work. Deeny commented: “Over the five years I was at university, I developed an in-depth knowledge of several chemical engineering subjects while enhancing my problem solving, project management and analytical skills through design projects.
“In addition to this, I undertook a nuclear engineering class in my final year. Since starting at Dounreay, I believe this subject knowledge and these skills have allowed me to positively contribute to projects and help solve technical problems I encounter.”

Deeny explained how a focus on professional development and mentoring at Dounreay has worked in his favour: “The development scheme has provided me with the training I need to succeed in my current role and has also worked with my department to tailor the training to my needs.

“As well as this, I have been provided with a mentor in my discipline to advise me on my development and achieving chartered status. I know that in the future, the professional development scheme will provide me with training that is suitable for that point in my career, such as leadership and project management courses.”

Deeny wants to stay in the nuclear sector and added: “I find the nuclear industry fascinating and, in the future, would like to continue helping to solve the unique challenges the industry presents across the world.”

In 2015, Dounreay recruited 15 graduates and in 2016 recruited ten. The graduates go through a programme of training and have the opportunity to work in different areas of the site. Dounreay also has a professional development scheme accredited by the Institution of Engineering and Technology, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and the Institute of Physics. Dounreay Site Restoration Ltd (DSRL) is awaiting the outcome of accreditation with the Institution of Chemical Engineers.

Collegiate approach

Dounreay’s Marie Mackay spends just under half her time on a secondment supporting a school link and higher education initiative, which forms another strand of getting appropriately skilled people into the decommissioning blend.

The North Highland College UHI role means that schools and the college work in partnership and provide access to college courses whilst at school. This arrangement has allowed engagement with pupils, teachers and parents to be developed and provides the college and students a greater insight into employer requirements today and in the future.

The initiative works with nine secondary schools, staff, secondary pupils from years S3 to S6 and parents to promote the courses available at North Highland College UHI.

Mackay said: “North Highland College offers a vast range of courses to school pupils through the senior phase programme; extending and complementing the studies available to them whilst in their senior years at school. The courses offered are reviewed annually to ensure they are what the pupils and employers are looking for. Some courses are run specifically for school pupils; others are offered to study alongside full-time students.

“An example is Skills for Work: Engineering Skills which is offered at national four and national five level. The pupils will develop the generic practical skills, knowledge, understanding and employability skills required for this sector, focusing on the broad areas of: mechanical, fabrication, electrical, electronic, maintenance and design and manufacture.”

Following this, pupils can go on to a full-time college engineering course or an engineering modern apprenticeship.
“They’ll be in a position to make an informed decision on the discipline they wish to develop in. From an employer’s perspective, they will have a basic understanding of the discipline whilst also having gained generic employability skills from the course,” she said.

This educational route ties in with the Dounreay apprenticeship scheme, with many apprentices having completed the Engineering Skills course beforehand and other Dounreay staff having been educated at North Highland College UHI.
She explained how a number of organisations have come together to facilitate her role, saying: “Skills is one of the priorities of the Caithness and North Sutherland Regeneration Partnership; and the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), DSRL and North Highland College UHI are partners – by working together it is bringing employer knowledge to the college and to the pupils.

“NDA, DSRL and North Highland College UHI support the Developing the Young Workforce project (a Scottish plan aiming to reduce youth unemployment by 2021); and working together provides a more coordinated approach to skills and education in the area.”

The secondment plays a role in responding to the decommissioning challenges ahead for an ageing workforce and also plays a role in the socio-economics of the area, which will change dramatically as the site workforce is reduced towards the site end state.

Mackay told NEI: “Dounreay recognises it has an ageing workforce, so we need to keep these young people in the area for the decommissioning of the site and the future socio-economic development of the area beyond Dounreay. This role creates the opportunity to engage with senior secondary pupils, informing them of the opportunities that are available at Dounreay now and in the future, and also the future opportunities in the area beyond Dounreay.”

Ben Mackay, who studied Engineering Skills, went on to complete several Scottish higher exams, then a higher national certificate and higher national diploma in engineering systems with North Highland College UHI. He is now employed at Dounreay where he uses some of the skills learned on the engineering course every day. He is continuing his studies with North Highland College UHI towards an engineering degree (BEng) in electrical and electronic engineering.

He pointed out that the Engineering Skills course is a good way of finding out whether engineering is right for you and continued: “It covers tasks such as reading and understanding technical drawings, to manufacturing and testing components and circuits made during the course. The course was beneficial as it showed me the practical side of the theory learned in school, giving me a better understanding of how maths, science and technical subjects are applied in engineering.”
STEM promotion

DSRL and UHI signed a memorandum of understanding formalising that DSRL would continue to provide a STEM coordinator for STEM ambassadors and activities in the Dounreay area and surrounding places. Pat Kieran, DSRL STEM coordinator spends one day per week coordinating STEM activities for the north of Scotland.

The Dounreay site has 80 STEM Ambassadors, who did 1318 hours of volunteering during 2015 to 2016. Kieran explained this aspect of his work, saying: “I am employed on a 7.58 hours per week basis, to promote the STEM ambassador programme and facilitate activities in primary and secondary schools, and occasionally public events, which strengthen the interest in STEM-based subjects and careers.”

He said the work aims to get more local pupils studying STEM subjects, and returning to and remaining in the area to contribute to the technological economy.

“Activities such as engineering industry day have improved recruitment of apprentices and other STEM ambassador activities improve the confidence and people skills of ambassadors of all ages.”

Looking ahead, Kieran said: “I would like to see ambassadors more directly connected to schools, in a ‘key ambassador’ role where the school has a particular individual who will maintain an interest in the school, ensure they are aware of the scheme and their STEM education needs are being addressed on a regular basis,” he said.

Decommissioning Dounreay is expected to take until the 2030s with the skills and experience gained through the wide range of education and training initiatives playing a significant role for years to come.