Addressing the nuclear skills shortage

9 March 2022

React engineering consultants, from left, Tom Murphy, Tom Maguire and Maryam Olubodun who all took different routes from education to start their careers with the companyA Cumbria-based engineering company which specialises in decommissioning has expanded its student employment scheme in an effort to attract new talent into the nuclear sector. Why is this important?

The recent announcement of £100 million of Government investment in the Sizewell C project demonstrates that nuclear power remains a key part of the UK’s energy generation mix in the journey to net zero. 

Sizewell C nuclear power station is a proposed project which will generate enough low carbon electricity to supply six million homes across the UK, avoiding using an estimated nine million tonnes of carbon emissions by replacing traditional fossil fuel power.

To ensure public confidence in this technology, both now and in the future, we must demonstrate as an industry that we can safely and cost effectively deal with the wastes arising from historic operations and safely decommission the wide range of highly complex and potentially hazardous legacy industrial assets.

Our industry can suffer from a lack of diverse thinking and pragmatism, particularly during the early stages of project definition and design development. 

Business requirements are often specified in terms of a pre-determined technical solution, which can result in over-engineering, significant time delays and cost over-runs with projects being initiated without a thorough understanding of the technical risks and issues which need to be addressed.

This needs to be addressed, particularly if we are to progress decommissioning in a timely and cost-effective manner.

Decommissioning increases demand for talent

The UK nuclear market is currently buoyant as more sites shift their focus from steady state power generation or fuel reprocessing operations and transition into major decommissioning and waste management programmes, which also necessitate significant capital investment in the creation of new assets. 

This dynamic has caused increased demand for talented people, alongside the macro level skills shortage across engineering, technical and project management disciplines across the economy.

Furthermore, the combination of geography, underlying culture and market forces in West Cumbria create a unique set of challenges and barriers for organisations based there to attract, develop and retrain the sort of talented individuals needed to deliver complex decommissioning programmes and enable sustainable business growth and diversification. 

To deliver our collective mission, the nuclear sector therefore needs to be more strategic and more innovative about how it attracts and develops new talent into our sector.

A key element of the approach needs to focus on building capability for the future, meaning that we need a pipeline of talented young people, with the right technical qualifications and softer skills typically obtained by individuals who have studied for a degree at university. 

How can the nuclear industry attract young talent?

Young people, including graduates, should be the lifeblood of our industry. They are the people with fresh ideas, the different ways of thinking and the energy and enthusiasm to make things happen.

Young people, especially from West Cumbria, face numerous barriers to studying at university. Anecdotally, these include stifled aspirations resulting from a lack of understanding and inspiration associated with future career paths, having to travel outside of the county to access Russell Group universities and concerns around student debt and access to finance to fund courses as well as living away from home.

React Engineering Limited, an independently owned nuclear decommissioning consultancy based in West Cumbria, close to the Sellafield nuclear site, is doing its part to try and break down some of these barriers with its React Futures programme. 

React Futures is an innovative undergraduate employment scheme where school leavers are offered the opportunity to kick start their career. 

The programme involves a job with React from day one, giving undergraduates valuable work experience which many have struggled to obtain during the pandemic; a year in industry with React before they go to university; an attractive annual salary throughout their university years; practical work experience at during summer holidays; a full-time job, in a supportive yet challenging environment at React after graduation and continuous professional development during their employment at React towards attaining Chartered status in their chosen field.

To address some of the broader social factors in this area, the React Foundation, a charity established by React Engineering in 2004, has the aim of raising the aspirations of the young people of Cumbria and promoting higher education in STEM subjects. 

It does this by providing ‘lightbulb moments’ through a combination of inspirational events, study bursaries and targeted support for young people from Cumbria between the ages of eight and 18.

Photo: React engineering consultants, from left, Tom Murphy, Tom Maguire and Maryam Olubodun who all took different routes from education to start their careers with the company

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