Historically the United Kingdom was at the forefront of nuclear energy innovation for the production of electricity, from the opening of Calder Hall in 1956 as the first nuclear power station to produce electricity on a full industrial scale, through the development of our gas-cooled Magnox and AGR fleets and the fast reactor programme at Dounreay. By the 1990s, though, with a ‘dash for gas’ to generate electricity and still reeling from the lack of public confidence following the Chernobyl accident, the UK nuclear sector was in decline. The result was that only one of a proposed fleet of four PWRs was built, at Sizewell B. The electricity market in the UK had been privatised, leading to the closure of all the Central Electricity Generating Board research laboratories and the break-up of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority. This lack of investment had also percolated into the university system with a sharp decline in public fission research funding and a sharp reduction in the number of students studying on the few remaining nuclear courses.

It was against this backdrop that the Health and Safety Executive commissioned a report in 2002 on nuclear education in the United Kingdom, to ascertain whether UK universities were able to produce sufficient graduates to support the UK nuclear industry, which was still providing more than 20% of the nation’s electricity. The report summed up the situation at the UK universities with the damning statement that "if nuclear education were a patient in a hospital it would be in intensive care". It went on to say, "the focus of nuclear education should be on postgraduate courses as it is at this level that the main specialisation into disciplines of relevance to the nuclear industry occurs. Further, because of the way university funding operates it is far easier for industry to support or initiate postgraduate courses than undergraduate ones".

Urgent action needed

Urgent action was required to halt this decline or the UK would be left with no nuclear courses at any university, which would be a serious, almost irreversible situation, resulting in a lack of an educated workforce to decommission existing reactors, or support operating reactors to at least 2035.

The report found pockets of nuclear expertise within UK universities. Four nuclear university research alliances (URAs) had received significant funding from British Nuclear Fuels Ltd between 1999 and 2002. There had been little problem recruiting new staff and PhD students to these URAs, so interest in nuclear energy was still evident. The way forward was therefore determined to be a new postgraduate Master’s programme, run by a consortium of UK universities but crucially with the flexibility to educate both part-time students that were already in industry and full-time students who had graduated at Bachelor’s level in engineering or physical sciences.

"The way forward was therefore determined to be a new postgraduate Master’s programme, run by a consortium of UK universities"

A consultation with industry, coordinated by Professor Richard Clegg at the University of Manchester, was initiated to understand which modules should be taught, and which delivery method would be best. Nuclear science and technology has been taught at university level for several decades, including the Physics and Technology of Nuclear Reactors (PTNR) course at the University of Birmingham — taught continuously since 1956 — so the majority of the content was easily identified. But at this stage of the UK nuclear industry, it was important to include decommissioning in the programme as well as modules to support continued operation, lifetime extension and any possible new-build programme, which ten years ago was looking more and more likely.

With content agreed, a delivery method that was as convenient as possible for industry involvement was required. Traditionally part-time students from industry attend university courses on a day-release basis, but feedback suggested that this was not ideal for industry and so a short-course module delivery format was chosen. Each of 20 available modules (see box) is taught on a Monday-Friday basis on 20 separate weeks during the year. The contact time for each module is therefore set at 40 hours, but each module will take 150 hours including pre-course work and post-course assignments. Full-time Master’s students take eight modules and write a dissertation, but the students can also choose three other options — four modules for a Postgraduate Certificate, another four to make eight modules for a Postgraduate Diploma or just a single module as part of a continuous professional development programme. Industry-based part-time students complete the course over three years, attending four modules in each of the first two years and completing their project and dissertation in the third year.

Establishing NTEC

"The Nuclear Technology Education Consortium was established in 2005, supported by a grant of £1 million for the first four years"

With the content and delivery method agreed by the ten consortium partners, the Nuclear Technology Education Consortium was established in 2005, supported by a grant of £1 million for the first four years from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. Further support from the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority in the fifth year enabled NTEC to become a fully self-sustained programme.

Of the NTEC modules listed in the box, many are available remotely as e-learning, as well as traditional lecture-based learning, reflecting the modern trend for students to study via the internet. Students can choose either e-learning or any combination of lecture-based modules delivered by the host university partner, as the learning outcomes for the two different delivery methods are identical.

A vital component for maintaining the success of the NTEC programme is continuous consultation and engagement with industry. This is achieved through various mechanisms:

  • The NTEC External Advisory Board
  • Industry-based lecturers
  • Summer placement opportunities for projects
  • Recruitment of NTEC graduates into industry
  • Industry supporting employees onto the programme.

The NTEC External Advisory Board meets annually to review the overall programme. It consists of representatives from the main nuclear companies that support the programme and the core NTEC management team. Companies are able to provide feedback on the programme from the experience of their employees attending the modules. Of particular interest to NTEC is whether the modules are kept up-to-date with new developments in industry and whether the module is providing the educational content as advertised. In parallel to this feedback mechanism there is a reciprocal peer-review process between each of the university partners, and a comprehensive student review system. Module content is therefore continually revised to make sure it is up-to-date and reflects all the latest technologies, regulations and best practices.

As NTEC was set up as a vocational course it is very important that industry-based lecturers support delivery of the programme. They are invited by the module leaders to provide industry-based examples to support the educational content and can explain how the techniques and technologies taught by the academic staff are translated into real-life benefits for industry. This is one of the key aspects of the NTEC course, as these lectures provide a bridge for the students from lecture-based learning to experiential learning. This provides them with the skills that are required by industry.

To graduate with a Master’s degree students must complete a project and write up a dissertation. For part-time students it is easy to undertake their project within their working environment. For full-time students it is the policy of NTEC to have as many students as possible undertake their project within industry. Over the course of the three-month project students are able to experience a completely new environment away from the university. The student and industry can use this period to evaluate each other for potential future employment. Through careful research, students are able to assess companies of interest to them, and apply for projects within these companies. Companies can recruit students that they may want to employ for a trial period during a project. This combination of a generic engineering or physical science undergraduate degree, and the specific NTEC nuclear science and technology postgraduate degree has been a very successful way of helping students find jobs that are matched to the skills they have developed.

Measuring success

The absolute measure of success of a vocational course such as NTEC is whether the students are recruited into industry. In this quantitative analysis NTEC has been very successful. Over 95% of students have been recruited into the nuclear industry or gone on to further nuclear study, particularly in the industry-based Nuclear Engineering Doctorate Programme.

With investment from industry, by supporting employees to attend the programme on a part-time basis, NTEC is able to use its funding to offer fee-waivers and stipends. Students with a upper-second class degree or higher can apply for a bursary covering their full course fees and a stipend of £7,500, while students with a lower second class degree can apply for a reduced course fee. This mechanism ensures that the number of students for recruitment into the nuclear industry is as high as possible.

Since NTEC was established in 2005 more than 600 students have gone through the programme and been recruited into the decommissioning and electrical generation sectors in the UK, and increasingly the new-build workforce for which many companies are now recruiting.

Many overseas students have also graduated from the programme, initially by attending for study in the UK but now with the option of the e-learning modules. This allows part-time international students to join the programme, increasing their skills while maintaining their employment. It is the continued enthusiasm of the NTEC university partners-Birmingham, City University (London), Central Lancashire, Imperial College London, Lancaster, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield and the naval Defence Academy — that enables the programme to improve.

"Many overseas students have also graduated from the programme, initially by attending for study in the UK but now with the option of the e-learning modules."

The success of NTEC, and other increases in funding to the nuclear universities from the Research Councils and industry, has meant that new academic staff have been recruited that can offer an increasing number of undergraduate and postgraduate taught programmes. These are all taught in the traditional semester-based system, so are not in competition with NTEC. In fact, many of these courses have been established by the NTEC partners. These new courses, along with NTEC, and the long-established courses such as PTNR at Birmingham and the Radiation and Environmental Protection Master’s Course at the University of Surrey, have all seen an increase in student numbers in recent years, providing the workforce that is needed for a successful nuclear industry.

To return to the analogy of a patient in a hospital, nuclear education has now been discharged and is thriving as an example of how universities, working in collaboration, can establish a programme and grow a sector that was almost dead. Such has been the success of NTEC that other countries are using it has a template to coordinate their universities to provide nuclear education to support their new build programmes. The UK Nuclear Technology Education Consortium is where the UK used to be all those years ago, at the forefront of nuclear innovation — and in step with the International Atomic Energy Agency, which identified the sharing of resources as a tendency and a necessity.

NTEC programme modules, and where they are taught (e-learning available)

  • Reactor Physics, Criticality & Design – The University of Birmingham (e-learning)
  • Nuclear Fuel Cycle – University of Central Lancashire (e-learning)
  • Radiation & Radiological Protection – The University of Manchester (e-learning)
  • Decommissioning / Waste / Environmental Management – University of Central Lancashire (e-learning)
  • Water Reactor Performance and Safety – Imperial College London
  • Reactor Materials & Lifetime Behaviour – The University of Manchester
  • Nuclear Safety Case Development – Defence Academy (e-learning)
  • Particle & Colloid Engineering in the Nuclear Industry – University of Leeds
  • Policy, Regulation & Licensing – The University of Manchester
  • Processing, Storage & Disposal of Nuclear Waste – The University of Sheffield (e-learning)
  • Radiation Shielding – The University of Liverpool
  • Reactor Thermal Hydraulics – Defence Academy (e-learning)
  • Criticality Safety Management – Defence Academy (e-learning)
  • Risk Management – City University, London
  • Geotechnical Aspects of Radioactive Waste Disposal – University of Central Lancashire
  • Environmental Impact Assessment – The University of Manchester
  • Decommissioning Technology & Robotics – Lancaster University (e-learning)
  • Design of Safety Critical Systems – Lancaster University
  • Management of the Decommissioning Process – The University of Birmingham (e-learning)
  • Experimental Reactor Physics – The University of Manchester

About the author

John Roberts, nuclear fellow, is in the School of Physics and Astronomy, The University of Manchester