The head of nuclear at one of Britain’s leading engineering companies says the sector will not have the engineering capacity to develop a new generation of nuclear power plants, if the government fails to commit to a clear policy strategy.

The country hasn’t built a nuclear power plant in decades and government inaction has presided over a failure to train new engineers, while experienced engineers gradually retire.
Hinkley nuclear construction engineer
Alistair Smith, nuclear development director at Costain told Financial Times, “It’s 20 years since we built a nuclear power station. These people are not just sitting around waiting to start again. We’ve just got Hinkley Point C started and resources on that project are already starting to look scarce.”

About 1,800 people are already employed at Hinkley and about 25,000 jobs are expected to be created by the project over the next decade. Mr Smith said there were a limited number of UK contractors with the capabilities to deliver projects as big and complex as nuclear power stations and companies needed to see more clarity before decisions are made on investing in the necessary skills.

“It’s difficult for me to convince my chief executive that we should be building up the skills ready for starting next year, because I said the same to him last year, and the year before,” Mr Smith said at a recent industry conference. “We’ve had experience at Hinkley where we started training people in 2012 and they had nothing to do at the end of it.”

If the “new build” programme goes ahead as planned, the number of workers needed in the UK nuclear sector would grow from almost 88,000 this year to just over 100,000 in 2021, according to the latest annual assessment by the Nuclear Skills Strategy Group, which includes representatives from government, regulators, industry and unions.

Many technical specialists joined the industry during its last major growth period in the 1980s. An average 6,830 full-time jobs are expected to be created across the UK nuclear sector every year until 2021 and a fifth of them will be replacements for people leaving the sector. Industry executives said finding workers would be made harder by competition from other big construction projects. The rigorous safety and security regulations involved in nuclear engineering are expected to be another hurdle to hiring for nuclear industry jobs.

The department for business, energy and industrial strategy said it was working through bodies such as the Nuclear Skills Strategy Group to ensure that “the UK nuclear industry has the skills needed”. A National College for Nuclear is being set up with £15m of government backing at sites in Somerset and Cumbria with a stated aim to train 7,000 people by 2020. Bridgwater and Taunton College in Somerset is already offering degree-level apprenticeships for people training to work on the nearby Hinkley C project, with financial support from EDF and its contractors.