The nuclear renaissance - taking on the skills shortage and net zero

4 min read

With growing Parliamentary support for the Nuclear Energy Bill, which will help with financing new power stations in Britain, now is the time for nuclear.

However, with numerous major infrastructure projects running in parallel, the pressing question remains: how do we create the pipeline of talent needed to regenerate our country’s nuclear capabilities in line with net zero aspirations?

Here, Mace’s Business Unit Director for Defence, Nuclear, Energy and Utilities, Andy Oldham, considers whether an industry led, government partnered programme is the way forward in tackling not just our nuclear resourcing needs, but those of the wider infrastructure sector. 

Many people may be surprised to learn that currently, the UK’s nuclear fleet supplies around 20% of our country’s electricity and 40% of its clean electricity.

A central pillar in the fight against climate change, nuclear is a proven source of low carbon electricity, which has quietly powered our homes, industry and businesses, come rain, wind or shine, over the past six decades.

Fast scaling up the political agenda in the face of the current energy crisis and volatile price movements, nuclear is a proven technology which ticks all the required boxes, thanks to its reliability and cost effectiveness.

With the UK having one of the most closely regulated nuclear power systems in the world, it is both safe and secure. An ideal energy source for such a densely populated and land restricted country, it is understandable why nuclear is increasingly being recognised for its importance in our future clean energy mix.

With Hinkley Point C, which is due to commission in the mid-2020s, set to deliver 71,000 jobs through supply chain alone, the clean growth potential of this sector is exponential, linking to the wider levelling up agenda and Covid-19 recovery.

However, with the UK’s existing plants due to cease generating by the end of 2030, the economic stimulus programme to ‘Build Back Better’, alongside our nation’s fast-growing energy requirements, now is the time to scrutinise whether we have the capabilities needed to deliver on our closely fused nuclear and net zero ambitions.

The skills climate

The current renaissance in nuclear follows a two decade pause in delivery.

Now, with major programmes ongoing, including Hinkley Point C and Sizewell C, alongside plans for Small Modular Reactors, fusion reactor research, and a not so insignificant decommissioning programme, there is a requirement to revitalise the nuclear workforce to reinstate the UK as sector world-leaders.

However, nuclear, which is set to deliver some of the UK’s most important and ground-breaking construction projects, faces an ever-growing skills gap - a challenge which needs addressing now.

Compounded by Brexit and an aging domestic workforce, it is much harder to access the specialist and skilled workers needed to deliver new nuclear capacity. As is true for the wider infrastructure sector, there are thousands of exciting, stable and well-paid jobs to be had – but not enough people to fill them. 

As such, the UK is at risk of being left to wider market forces, which could result in inflated labour costs, undermining the feasibility of critical infrastructure projects. This may well lead to difficult decisions being made, as seen in Germany, where the elimination of nuclear has led to a growing reliance on power from coal plants. Carbon emissions increases through such means is both a political and environmental no-go. 

Partnering for success

It is undeniable that a greater level of proactive state and market intervention is therefore required.

A quantum leap in the right direction would be to establish an industry and government-led programme to focus on developing a skills pipeline, not just for nuclear and net zero, but other major projects too.

A centralised programme management approach would allow for the improved and consistent phasing of major projects - meaning that important energy, transport and housing schemes would no longer have to compete as stubbornly for resource.

With the ambition of delivering 40 new hospitals across England by 2030, the government already seems to be establishing a more cohesive methodology towards healthcare delivery, coordinating amongst local trusts and resources, bringing forward improvements to patient care. 

In the case of nuclear, we could see a similar approach applied across the distribution of best practice and relevant skillsets, with resource allocated according to programmed project requirements. This would result in improved outcomes, achieved by getting the right people on board, at the right time.

The development of a Nuclear Delivery Programme Management Office (PMO) would provide a reliable and measurable flow of information to the sector, informing how and when projects are delivered.

Supported by data collection and careful and detailed reporting, the PMO function would establish ‘one version of the truth’, creating a springboard for swift action, whilst identifying where elements of the existing workforce could be reskilled and redeployed. This would drive both jobs creation and net zero growth.

This knowledge would better direct the development and deployment of STEM outreach, as well as training and apprenticeship opportunities, creating a pipeline of diverse, informed and engaged people. Working on this grassroots basis, more people would be made aware of the benefits of working within nuclear, which speaking from personal experience, provides a highly rewarding, exciting and meaningful career path.

As an industry, we are well versed in solving highly complex project challenges, using ever more innovative solutions. It is now time to umbrella this thinking across all major project delivery.

Together, with the support of government, we can ensure that the country is best placed to deliver vital projects and programmes, on time and to budget, all whilst providing social legacy en route to net zero.

*This article was originally published by New Civil Engineer.