How fossil fuel skills can transform the nuclear industry

16 February 2023

As the nuclear sector looks to ramp up staffing levels, the skills found in the oil and gas industry could prove an invaluable asset in both streamlining the business and providing a source of ready labour.

Above: Life extension skills honed in the oil and gas business could prove valuable in the nuclear business

Few realise that the accelerating energy transition is enabling a mass shift of fossil fuel skills and expertise that could transform other industries such as the nuclear power sector. The O&G industry has pioneered lean engineering models that could form a template for sustainable development, from the maintenance of assets beyond their design life to the creation of multi-skilled technical workforces and the seamless integration of design and operations. Furthermore, a recent survey from the Global Energy Talent Index found that 82% of oil and gas professionals are now open to transitioning to outside industries such as nuclear, which will perpetuate this transition of skills.

Ultimately, this has the potential to be transformative for industries like nuclear power. Construction supply chain shortages, soaring energy prices, and the need for sustainable development have created cross-sector demand for more cost and carbon-efficient infrastructure development. Decades of pressure to reduce costs and carbon emissions means the O&G industry has amassed abundant insights and expertise that could now drive leaner development, lowering the cost of everything from industrial manufacturing to energy.

A legacy of lean engineering innovation

A slowdown in new development due to social and government pressures regarding climate change have driven more efficient O&G engineering methods and workforce models with exciting cross-sector applications. This means the industry has become a pioneer in engineering innovations with widespread applications outside the industry.

Mass redundancies during boom-and-bust cycles compelled the industry to create a workforce model of multi-skilled professionals that offers a template for other industries to build lean, adaptable labour pools. Climate change targets have also curbed oil and gas developments, freeing up resources for reinvestment in other sectors.

This has also spurred on lean engineering innovations from predictive maintenance to those that could radically reduce waste, repair, and replacement costs. Pressure to reduce lifecycle costs have also driven a consolidation of cradle-to-grave O&G services from design to decommissioning that could help others streamline and refine their manufacturing and maintenance ecosystems and reduce lifecycle costs.

The need for more localisation and vertical integration of supplies and services was emphasised during the global COVID-19 pandemic, where the globalisation and fragmentation of supplies was highlighted. The O&G industry has pioneered ways of localising, integrating, and consolidating diverse end-to-end ecosystems from design to decommissioning. Some O&G suppliers now provide consolidated one-stop-shop services across entire platform lifecycles from design and manufacture to inspection, refurbishment, replacement and even training of personnel. This reduces the risk of relying on a globally fragmented array of suppliers and service providers for different components. Streamlining and combining services under one umbrella also creates leaner and more efficient design and operations, helping to predict and control everything from costs to carbon emissions across entire lifecycles.

This also helps dissolve silos between design and operations and create collaboratively and cohesively designed infrastructure, reducing cost, complexity and overengineering. Whereas manufacturers often have little incentive to provide aftercare services or avoid replacing assets, end-to-end service providers can find ways of squeezing extra capacity from existing components and avoiding the need for costly replacements.

A circular economy of skills and assets

Growing demand for sustainable growth is driving a need to reduce manufacturing costs and consumption of raw materials across asset lifecycles. Growing corporate Environmental Social Governance (ESG) commitments are also driving demand for greater control over lifecycle emissions and other impacts. Cumulatively, this is creating cross-sector demand for a circular economy to help retain, repair, refurbish and repurpose existing assets.

The O&G industry has been a pioneer in this field. Many offshore oil rigs have lasted decades beyond their design life due to innovations in data-driven maintenance and applications engineering. Many technologies are designed with built-in obsolescence, but this can be overcome. Mechanical components contain data that can offer clues to reverse-engineering them for longer life or even repurposing them for other applications. For example, safe load indicators on cranes record everything from its safe lift limit to the grease condition and the weight of every lift across its lifecycle. This can be matched with expert engineering knowledge to find ways to keep it operational for longer. Sparrows, for example, was able to keep an O&G client’s crane safely operational for up to 25 years beyond its design life by using structural analysis data to identify and replace obsolete parts.

Applying these techniques could help other industries radically reduce manufacturing and maintenance costs across their lifecycles, for instance by marrying emerging technologies such as the Internet of Things and data analytics with O&G engineering methods.

The global engineering skills shortage – exacerbated by the economic slowdown caused by COVID-19, in addition to the gender gap and ageing workforce – has created a cross- sector need for more adaptable, multi-skilled workforces. Project-based industries such as nuclear that is anticipated to experience major growth also needs a pool of flexible, multi-skilled, globally mobile labour to rapidly scale up their workforce for new projects.

The need to preserve skills in the face of fluctuating oil prices means the O&G industry has long pioneered ways of transitioning workers between multiple sectors or specialisms, creating the desirable multi-skilled workforce. Indeed, many O&G technicians now have diverse CVs with skills ranging from mechanical to electrical and hydraulic systems. These are skills that are often transferrable to other sectors. There are even ‘multi-skilled ‘flying squads’ of technicians that can handle everything from installation and inspection of oil rigs to offshore wind platforms. This provides a model that could help other industries create a more lean, efficient, and flexible labour pool.

Other industries are increasingly recognising the transformational potential of O&G skills that were honed over decades. As a result, we are increasingly seeing a circular economy of O&G skills redistributed and repurposed for many applications across other industries. As the world balances demand for faster infrastructure development with the need for cost efficiency and sustainability, the lean engineering techniques learned in O&G are becoming more relevant than ever.

Author: Ewen Kerr, Chief Technical Officer, Sparrows Group

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