AS THE UK PREPARES TO invest at least £70 billion into building its next generation of nuclear power stations, work is also underway to decommission 17 historic sites, some of which date back to the 1940s.

To complete the construction of five proposed civil nuclear plants, one of which – Hinkley Point C in Somerset – is already approved with building underway, tens of thousands of engineers and construction workers will be required. This is in addition to the thousands of workers who are needed by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) to deliver the national decommissioning programme.

The majority of new-build work is earmarked for completion by 2030. That year, all but one of the UK’s historic nuclear sites will be reaching the end of their operational lives.

Meanwhile, at least 34% of the existing nuclear workforce is expected to reach pensionable age over the next 15 years. A highly skilled and diverse workforce is needed, but where will they come from?

Many of the industry’s current mid-level to senior-level engineers and project managers are already thinking seriously about the prospect of an imminent retirement, and there is a noticeable and growing void of workers in the nuclear decommissioning sector who are aged between 35 and 55.

This will be compounded by the new-build work, which is set to attract many younger recruits, as well as existing experienced and talented workers from the NDA’s decommissioning programme.

Because nuclear decommissioning is a highly regulated industry, its flexibility might be significantly narrower than other industries, but this does not mean it is impossible to address the challenge.

The sector relies predominantly on a workforce characterised as ‘suitably qualified and experienced persons’. To overcome a shortage in these workers, businesses who are leading on decommissioning projects must begin to look further afield and consider talent from adjacent industries. NDA-approved projects should be able to attract people who have a grounding in engineering gained from other related sectors, bringing forward a much broader skillset.

There might be a steep learning curve for those who join the decommissioning programme from another discipline, such as conventional power, transportation and storage, or the water industry. But this approach is better for the sector than building up the years of experience that is required for those who join the industry straight out of education.

However, it still takes at least 10-15 years to plug a skills shortage and it has been recognised that nuclear decommissioning in the UK must bridge skills gaps in the following areas:

  • Health physics and radiological protection engineering and monitors;
  • Waste and waste categorisation;
  • Quality engineers;
  • Human factors;
  • Higher level skills and subject matter experts; and
  • Chartered status purchasing and supply professionals.

The UK nuclear decommissioning programme is project-led and nationwide. But though the programme will be long term (in some parts of the estate the works to manage waste will continue for more than 100 years), within it projects will often have a life-cycle of 2-3 years. The NDA has highlighted that having a mobile and flexible workforce will be essential to meet these peaks and troughs, as resources will be needed in different locations.

One solution to help with transferring people across disciplines and organisations in the nuclear sector is to work with contractors who will help manage those periods of change and uncertainty. Building a team of trusted and qualified contractors who have gained experience working in related sectors can help businesses react quickly to tackle new projects and launch new teams to embrace the opportunities created by decommissioning.  

Author information: Paul Murphy, Senior recruitment consultant at NES Global