The nuclear renaissance: Against the shortage of skilled workers and net zero
With growing parliamentary support for the Atomic Energy Act, which will help fund new power plants in the UK, now is the time for nuclear power. With numerous large infrastructure projects running in parallel, however, the pressing question remains: How do we create the talent pipeline necessary to regenerate our country’s nuclear capabilities in line with net zero aspirations?
Many people will be surprised to learn that the UK nuclear fleet currently provides around 20% of our country’s electricity and 40% of its clean electricity.
Nuclear power is a central pillar in the fight against climate change and a proven source of low-carbon electricity that has quietly powered our homes, industries and businesses in rain, wind or shine for the past six decades.
Given the current energy crisis and volatile price movements, nuclear energy is a proven technology that, thanks to its reliability and cost efficiency, meets all the necessary requirements.
Because the UK has one of the most strictly regulated nuclear power stations in the world, it is both safe and secure. As an ideal energy source for such a densely populated country with limited land, it is understandable why nuclear energy is increasingly recognized for its importance in our future clean energy mix.
With Hinkley Point C, slated to open in the mid-2020s, to create 71,000 jobs through the supply chain alone, the clean growth potential of this sector is exponential and is linked to the broader leveling agenda and recovery from Covid-19.
However, with the UK’s existing power plants going out of production by the end of 2030, now is the time to look at the Build Back Better stimulus program, alongside our country’s rapidly growing energy needs, to see if we have the skills to meet our needs to meet closely conflated nuclear and net-zero ambitions.
The competence climate
The current renaissance of nuclear energy is followed by a two-decade long break in delivery.
Now that big programs are underway, including Hinkley Point C and Sizewell C, alongside plans for small modular reactors, fusion reactor research and a not-so-insignificant decommissioning program, there is a need to revitalize the nuclear workforce to re-establish Britain as a sector world leader.
However, nuclear energy, which is set to deliver some of the UK’s most important and groundbreaking construction projects, is facing an ever-growing skill gap – a challenge that needs to be addressed now.
With Brexit and an aging local workforce, it is much more difficult to get the skilled and skilled workers needed to deploy new nuclear capacity. As in the wider infrastructure sector, there are thousands of exciting, stable and well-paying jobs – but not enough people to fill them.
Therefore, there is a risk that the UK will be left to broader market forces, which could lead to excessive labor costs and undermine the feasibility of critical infrastructure projects. This can lead to difficult decisions, as in Germany, where the nuclear phase-out has led to an increasing reliance on coal-fired power plants. The increase in CO2 emissions from such measures is both a political and an ecological no-go.
Partnership for success
It is undeniable that, as a result, a greater degree of proactive government and market intervention is required.
A quantum leap in the right direction would be the establishment of an industry and government led program that focuses on developing a skills pipeline, not just for nuclear and net zero, but for other major projects as well.
A centralized program management approach would enable an improved and consistent staggering of large projects – which means that important energy, transport and housing projects would no longer have to compete so stubbornly for resources.
With the aim of building 40 new hospitals across England by 2030, the government seems already to be establishing a more coherent healthcare methodology, coordinating local trusts and resources and improving patient care.
In the case of nuclear energy, we saw a similar approach to the distribution of best practices and relevant skills, with resources allocated according to the programmed project requirements. This would lead to improved results by getting the right people on board at the right time.
The development of a Nuclear Delivery Program Management Office (PMO) would provide the sector with a reliable and measurable flow of information informing how and when projects are being carried out.
Backed by data collection and careful and detailed reporting, the PMO function would create “a version of the truth”, a stepping stone for swift action, while also identifying where elements of the existing workforce could be re-qualified and redeployed. This would encourage both job creation and net zero growth.
This knowledge would better steer the development and use of MINT outreach as well as training and apprenticeship offers and create a pipeline of diverse, informed and committed people. If you work on the grass roots basis, more people would be made aware of the benefits of working in the nuclear field, which from my own experience offers a very rewarding, exciting and meaningful career path.
As an industry, we are well versed in solving highly complex project challenges with increasingly innovative solutions. It is now time to bundle this thinking across all important project developments.
Together with government support, we can ensure that the country is best placed to deliver important projects and programs on time and on budget, while delivering social heritage on the road to net zero.
For me this is a very rewarding path!
* Andy Oldham is Business Unit Director for Defense, Nuclear, Energy and Utilities at Mace
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