Nuclear centre aims to fill training gap

A leading university will on Monday announce plans for a Centre for Nuclear Energy Technology to help plug severe skills gaps in Britain’s nuclear sector.

The University of Manchester’s move comes weeks after Gordon Brown, prime minister, gave the go-ahead for a new generation of plants.

Cogent, the industry body responsible for forecasting nuclear skills demand, warns that more than 9,000 graduates may be needed over the next 10 years, and up to 4,500 other skilled workers for jobs such as mechanical work and essential checking.

Sarah Johnson, head of organisation development at British Energy, the country’s biggest nuclear producer, said: “We don’t believe skills shortages have hit us yet, but the challenge is on the horizon.” Ms Johnson explained that 30 per cent of British Energy’s staff were set for retirement over the next 10 years, leaving a large hole in skills unless they were replaced by new entrants.

Industry experts say the problem is exacerbated by a decline in the number of engineering and physics graduates, and increasingly attractive City opportunities for them.

Manchester University plans to address the problem by raising £25m ($49m) for investment in the centre, which is set this year to start training present and future nuclear workers and conducting nuclear research.

The university already has the Dalton Nuclear Institute. But Paul Howarth, research director at the institute and the man leading the bid for the centre, said there were only “pockets” of nuclear research left in UK higher education, at Manchester and other universities such as Imperial College London. He said government funding for nuclear research had declined from about £500m a year at today’s prices in the 1970s, to about £10m now.

Mr Howarth, who has secured about one-third of the £25m in financial commitments from industry and the university, said the rebuilding of home-grown expertise was essential. “We may well buy our reactor systems from overseas, but we need to understand, from a safety angle, what we’re being sold. We can’t do that with a bunch of people in the UK reading a brochure about the new reactor system. They need to get under the bonnet to understand: is it safe, is it secure?”

Ms Johnson acknowledged the difficulty of diverting engineering and other science graduates away from high-paid City jobs into the nuclear industry, although the sector insists graduate-entry pay, at £25,000-plus, is above the economy-wide average. She extolled the intellectual virtues of life in the sector, saying: “For people in engineering, this industry is very exciting.”

The industry financed the creation of the National Skills Academy for Nuclear last month. It does not teach, but helps design courses and provides advice to employers looking for particular skills.

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