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The Guardian: British nuclear renaissance faces threat of skills meltdown

· Staffing is biggest issue for industry, says union
· Firms already offering £10,000 signing-on fees

Terry Macalister
Wednesday May 31, 2006
The Guardian

A skills shortage threatens to derail Britain’s nuclear decommissioning and new building programme, the industry’s biggest trade union has warned.

Prospect, the engineering, science and management union, said the poaching of staff is already endemic among engineering and other companies ahead of a £50bn-plus dismantling bonanza and the final go-ahead for a second generation of nuclear power stations.

The Nuclear Industries Inspectorate, which regulates safety at UK plants, has admitted that it is already finding it difficult to recruit and believes this is a common problem across this energy sector.

“The skills issue is the biggest problem facing the industry. It is top of our list to be sorted out,” said Mike Graham, national secretary of Prospect. “There is a lack of trained staff from craft jobs right up to postgraduates because people have not been training nuclear engineers.”

A long period of public antagonism and lack of government interest in new nuclear plants had encouraged many to leave an industry which appeared to have an uncertain future. But Tony Blair’s decision to hand over to private firms the dismantling of plants that have reached the end of their lives has raised the profile of the atomic sector.

The decommissioning work comes at a time when the prime minister has also signalled an intention to give a green light to a new generation of atomic plants. Up to now the bulk of jobs in the nuclear industry have been within two main operating companies: the state-owned British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL), which controls Sellafield, in Cumbria, and the privatised atomic generator British Energy. But now major electricity suppliers such as E.ON and RWE are considering building and operating nuclear facilities, while engineering firms such as Amec have established specialist nuclear units.

The British problems are being compounded by the fact that already around 30 new atomic plants are under construction in 11 other countries, with dozens more planned around the world, from China to Russia and the US.

In addition there is a more general shortage of unskilled labour due to the large number of big projects under way in Britain, such as Heathrow Terminal 5 and the Channel Tunnel Rail Link. Some of these should be completed before any construction work begins on new atomic plants, but there will be preparations for the 2012 Olympic games. There are also numerous other public sector schemes courtesy of the government’s school, hospital and prison building programme under the Private Finance Initiative. The oil and gas industry is already struggling against similar skills shortages. Shell recently said it was postponing projects because of shortages of people and equipment.

Manouchehr Takin, of the Centre for Global Energy Studies, said: “Industry is always cyclical and a lot of people left the oil industry after the downturn of 1998-99. There is always a limited amount of capacity around, whether it’s for semi-submersible pumps in the offshore industry or the more advanced kind of technology you need for nuclear.”

Top engineering firms such as aero engine maker Rolls-Royce have been forced to move research and development abroad because of Britain’s diminishing skills base. John Rose, the Rolls-Royce chief executive, said recently that the number of electronics and electrical engineering students had dropped by 30% in two years.

The Nuclear Industries Inspectorate has admitted it would like 180 inspectors but has only 165. “It is no secret that we have had problems recruiting the right kind of people,” said a spokesman. “There is an issue right across the industry and various initiatives are ongoing to ensure we can find staff.”

The Nuclear Industry Association, which represents 120 of the leading companies, dismisses worries about future shortages but admits there could be “potential pinch-points” in reactor design, safety and licensing. “The current experienced personnel will be approaching retirement age over the next five to ten years,” it warns, but says there is still time to put training schemes in place.

The association stands by its recent study which found that “companies in the UK nuclear industry have the capability to provide over 80% of the scope of new nuclear power station projects.” The study assumed a programme of ten reactors to be built at five sites over 15 to 20 years. This would generate 64,000 man-years of work, and it claims there is plenty of slack in the system to cope.

“The requirement for civil engineering resources to build a new nuclear power station would represent only a small proportion, around 2% to 3%, of the national capability,” it says. “Any new nuclear build would occur predominantly after construction for the 2012 Olympics.”

Meanwhile, Prospect members are benefiting from the upsurge in interest in nuclear power and demand for those who understand the complexities of decommissioning, says Mr Graham. “Longstanding employees are being offered up to £10,000 as signing-on fees by new employers, who are often guaranteeing to preserve pension entitlements and provide other inducements.”

Explainer: building new reactors

A project to build five new twin-reactor nuclear plants over 20 years would create thousands of new jobs, the atomic industry claims.

The chances are that these new power stations would be located on existing sites, which tend to be in outlying areas of Cumbria, Suffolk or Scotland, where well-paid jobs are often hard to come by. While the public at large has reservations due to considerations about the safety of nuclear power, local people are often enthusiastic because of the jobs created by the existing power stations.

The Nuclear Industry Association (NIA) believes that over the two decades that it would take to build new plants, about 64,000 man-years of work would be created. Some 250 jobs would be created in project management and technical support; 2,400 more from construction and site-installation jobs, with a further thousand in manufacturing. The NIA, which has a clear interest in playing up the scale of these job opportunities, also claims that operating 10 new facilities would bring another 3,000 jobs to oversee operations over their 60-year life cycle.

Some of these jobs would just replace ones that are being lost as the lifespan of the existing nuclear power stations comes to an end. By 2023 only Sizewell B is expected to be still operating.

Terry Macalister

Special report
The nuclear industry

Useful links
British Energy
Department of Trade and Industry
British Nuclear Fuels Ltd
Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament
HSE nuclear glossary
Come Clean WMD awareness programme
UK atomic energy authority
National Radiological Protection Board
Friends of the Earth
World Nuclear Association
World Nuclear Transport Institute

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