Young nuclear engineers - an endangered species

30 March 2001

Education and training in nuclear technologies could fall to catastrophic levels unless urgent action is taken. The numbers of young engineers entering the industry is not enough to ensure that there will be sufficient qualified staff for the future.

A major study of education and training trends in the nuclear sector has indicated some deeply worrying implications for the industry’s future. It concludes that, even without the addition of new nuclear generating capacity, the tasks of fuel reprocessing, plant decommissioning and waste management will require trained nuclear specialists for the forseeable future, yet there is a singular lack of new talent entering the sector, and there are few universities that now teach the necessary skills.

These findings are outlined in a report: Nuclear education and training: cause for concern? which was presented jointly by the UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) in January. The study addressed the sharp fall in the number of courses and training in nuclear education in member countries of the OECD and the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA).

Representatives from academia, governmental organisations and the nuclear industry attended a conference in Macclesfield, UK, at the report’s launch, and cited a number of concerns common to the science and engineering sector. Poor financial incentives, coupled with high levels of student debt, the falling number of applications for scientific degrees in general, increased competition from less mature sectors and poor public perception are thought to have reduced the influx of graduates to the sector to an all-time low.

Young Generation Network

Richard Booth of the Young Generation Network (YGN) asked his members if young people thought the nuclear industry could provide a sufficiently challenging career and secure future. Significantly, in a survey of YGN members from industry and academia, most viewed the industry’s future positively. Opportunities for career progression were seen as healthy, with natural wastage providing a continuing need to recruit.

Recruits entering the industry now will retire around 2030, when Sizewell B will be the only operational UK station if no new reactors are built. The Magnox reprocessing facility at Sellafield is due to close in 2012, and closure dates have been announced for the other Magnox stations. Final deep disposal of intermediate and high level waste still needs to be dealt with, as does final deposition of plutonium stocks. No new build is currently being planned, but decommissioning and waste management activities will continue to be important. New plant facilities are being commissioned now, mostly to manage waste produced by current operations and decommissioning activities. In the long term, the focus will shift to waste management and disposal, climate change and the environment.

University courses

Laurence Williams, director of the HSE’s nuclear safety directorate, said the nuclear industry will be around for some time. Reprocessing will run until 2015, power stations and submarines up to 2035, decommissioning until 2060, and legacy and waste management until 2080.

There are no universities in the UK that have first degree courses with any significant nuclear content. Half of the nuclear modules are optional, and most account for less than 5% of the degree. Three Masters courses of most use to the industry take 24 students a year, in nuclear reactor technology and applied radiation physics and 15 other Masters courses have minimal nuclear content. Most nuclear teaching facilities in the UK are over 25 years old. There is only one civil research reactor in the country, and the only two hot cell facilities in universities have closed.

Birmingham University runs two nuclear-orientated Masters courses, Applied Radiation Physics, and Physics and Technology of Nuclear Reactors. David Weaver, of the School of Physics and Astronomy at Birmingham, said that falling levels of applicants put the course in danger 18 months ago. A ‘partnering agreement’ was arranged, with eight organisations from the UK nuclear industry, to fund continuing Masters-level teaching. Weaver said that if industry does not continue to support the new partnering agreement, of if sufficient use is not made of the course, the resource at Birmingham could still disappear rapidly.

Two years ago, 356 graduates came from courses with nuclear content in the UK. Masters courses produced 82, and 15 were awarded a doctorate. This is coupled with a fall in science and engineering graduates, the latter having fallen 13% in five years. The brain drain is two-fold, as younger generations do not enter and older generations retire from the industry, taking their knowledge and experience with them. Malcolm Westgate, from the Ministry of Defence, said that at Devonport naval base, half of the 153 nuclear experts are over 50 years old. Five sponsorship places are offered each year on a nuclear advanced course on the nuclear submarine at HMS Sultan. The Royal Navy has 16 nuclear-powered submarines to support and maintain.

Investing in the future

But it is not all bad news. Richard Clegg, BNFL’s director of science, said that his company is working to underpin its nuclear R&D skills requirements. Clegg said that his industry ‘nuclearises’ the existing processes and that it was therefore looking for researchers from outside the nuclear sector to apply basic physical and chemical science These positions are advertised in Russia and the USA. Three research fellows have been have been recruited so far, and the target is 20.

BNFL and Manchester University are currently in the process of investing £2 million in a centre of excellence, the particle science and technology alliance at Leeds University. In addition to this, BNFL will provide over £8 million for the next five years to create a radiochemical centre of excellence at Manchester.

The company will also share its £180 million new R&D facilities with students. There are already ten Manchester students using them. BNFL wants the radiochemistry centre to be the hub of an international network, and a future school of nuclear engineering at Manchester is also being discussed.

Clegg said nuclear sciences lack both acceptance and support by the UK science councils, and that they must be recognised as priority subjects.

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