Mixed messages

5 March 2008

The current promotion of the UK National Skills Academy for Nuclear appears to run contrary to the recent closure of a multi-million pound nuclear education centre that shut due to lack of interest. By Corrina Thomson

Nuclear skills have become a hot topic with many people debating whether or not there will be a future skills shortage. This debate has been accompanied by a fanfare of publicity surrounding the launch of the UK National Skills Academy for Nuclear, which was attended by UK ministers David Lammy (skills) and Malcolm Wicks (energy) in London on 31 January.

But despite the fanfare, a multi-million pound UK nuclear education centre based in Scotland closed down in October 2007 due to lack of interest.

Others have expressed scepticism about whether or not the much-discussed ‘nuclear skills gap’ will materialise. After all, the nuclear industry, including organisations such as the UKAEA, have been providing apprenticeships since the industry’s inception over 50 years ago, and nuclear education has also been on offer at various locations.

DERC’s brief history

The £2.2 million Decommissioning and Environmental Remediation Centre (DERC), was created in 2004 to capitalise on decommissioning spin-offs. Located at Janetstown near the Dounreay nuclear plant in northern Scotland, it was set up as a major education, training and research centre to pioneer nuclear decommissioning education in the UK.

DERC was grant funded by the European Regional Development Fund and Highlands and Islands Enterprise, run by the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI), while the premises is owned by private firm JGC Engineering and Technical Services.

The centre itself was the subject of ongoing promotion, with high hopes in the area that it would be the first high-level decommissioning education centre, growing from the obvious experience of complex decommissioning at Dounreay, the now defunct UKAEA fast reactor and reprocessing site.

However, the expensive venue lay largely empty until remaining open was no longer financially viable, despite the significant grant funding put into it. The reason given for its failure to flourish was that there was no demand for the education on offer.

DERC offered a range of courses linked to decommissioning, including postgraduate research degrees. It also undertook research and consultancy in decommissioning and environmental remediation.

But a spokesman for UHI said the closure was due to “dramatic changes” in the landscape of the nuclear industry, which had resulted in research and contract work not materialising.

DERC cost some £300,000 a year to run and was closed following a UHI review.

Its closure was shortly followed by the UK National Skills Academy for Nuclear stating it had selected a consortium consisting of four Scottish colleges to develop and implement higher national diplomas for Scotland’s nuclear employers – qualifications below degree level.

The colleges include North Highland College, part of UHI, which was involved in the running of DERC and is also located near Dounreay in Caithness. North Highland College is being supported by Kilmarnock College, Dumfries and Galloway College, and Glasgow College of Nautical Studies.

In early December, only a few weeks after the DERC closure announcement, the National Skills Academy for Nuclear officially named the universities of Central Lancashire and Portsmouth, in England, as the chosen establishments to offer foundation degrees “that are needed by the nuclear sector to support job progression opportunities”.

Amongst the promotional material, the skills academy said the vocational degrees would: “Address the skills challenges that this strategically important industry is facing and fit within the ‘skills pyramid’ model that identifies the industry needs, from apprenticeships through to research.”

The National Skills Academy for Nuclear is a subsidiary of the Cogent Sector Skills Council for chemicals, pharmaceuticals, nuclear, oil and gas, petroleum and polymers. On its website, Cogent describes itself as being “licensed” by the government to provide employers in its sectors with “the opportunity for coherent leadership and strategic action to meet their skills needs”.

In February, a £10 million contract to build the ‘nuclear academy’ at Lillyhall, in England’s Workington, was awarded to West Cumbrian firm Thomas Armstrong. The building is due to be completed by early 2009 and will be able to accommodate some 250 students. Its creation was supported by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority.

Author Info:

Corrina Thomson is deputy editor of Nuclear Engineering International

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