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Sun, 25 October 2020

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Nuclear skills: The big conversation

Nuclear skills: The big conversation

Nuclear Industry Association | Nuclear Industry Association

7 min read Partner content

The question of how to build a skills base to take advantage of a move to new nuclear power was addressed by industry experts and the shadow energy minister at a Labour fringe event on Monday.

Chairing the event, which was hosted by the Nuclear Industry Association, Total Politics editor Sam Macrory the moves under the Coalition Government that had led to the development of new nuclear. He noted that there appeared to be both public and political support for new nuclear, which begged the question of where the necessary skills to make this a reality would come from.

Speaking first, Sandy Rupprecht, chief executive, NuGeneration, outlined his experience in the nuclear industry and noted the market in the UK was one of the best in the world to develop new nuclear. He referenced the cross party support and favour amongst labour unions.

Rupprecht accepted that skills and infrastructure were a challenge, but added that the existing public and private partnership could be utilised to good effect to develop this.

He spoke of the need to create a “strong demand signal” and linked this with greater certainty over nuclear more generally, citing the ongoing state aid investigation at the European Commission. Media reports had emerged earlier in the day suggesting the Commission had granted approval for the first new EDF nuclear plant, and he spoke of how this would encourage further investment and also allow students to see a future in the nuclear industry.

Stephen Tindale, former executive director of Greenpeace, and associate fellow at the Centre for European Reform, explained how he had initially been opposed to nuclear but changed his mind because of climate change, energy security issues and fuel poverty.

Whilst he would like to see 100 per cent of energy needs met by renewables, he explained this could take up to 100 years to achieve, “and we can’t make the best the enemy of the good”. He also made the point that the former Labour administration had been poor on delivering on renewables, leaving the country third from bottom in the European league table.

He explained that nuclear energy was currently cheaper that some forms of renewable energy, and therefore its use would not put more people into fuel poverty.

His final point was to emphasise that this had to be an industry that involved more women, in the nuclear industry. He explained that women tended to be more anti-nuclear than men and so this would also help shore up public support for nuclear.

Tom Greatrex, shadow energy minister, noted it seemed we were getting over the hurdle of the state aid issue, and explained how Labour had begun the moves to new nuclear at the end of their last term in office.

The reasons for his support for nuclear were around the low carbon nature of the energy produced, and the energy security it would generate. He added there was no denying that even when you look at over budgeted projects, the cost per megawatt hour for nuclear was cheaper that for renewables.

He said he would like to see 100 per cent renewables, but added that in the real world there was a pressing need to decarbonise, and the technology available at the moment did not deal with the intermittency of scalable renewable energy.

He said the skills agenda was a very important part of this, and explained that the new nuclear power stations were to be located away from large population centres, and in areas where there was a great need for skilled jobs. The challenge was partly Government’s and partly industry, he said, before offering praise for the Government’s Nuclear Energy Skills Alliance.

The shadow minister stressed that the jobs from decommissioning to construction and the operating of the new nuclear sites should be filled as much as possible by British workers, before going on to argue that the present skills infrastructure was already stretched. He stressed there was a big gap to fill and there should be no delay in trying to meet the challenge.

Question and answer session

Responding to the first question from the chair Greatrex highlighted how crucial it was to get children into the right subjects at a young age. He said he would want his own daughters to study STEM subjects if they could. He also welcomed previous comments from Ed Miliband on the technical baccalaureate and said the Richard Review on apprenticeships was important in this regard in terms of making sure there were the right standards and content for apprenticeships. He also spoke about the energy college sponsored by EDF which he felt showed some progress was being made.

Sandy Rupprecht agreed with the importance of STEM subjects in schools, and emphasised the importance of introducing these as early as possible. He spoke about the need to work with unions with respect to the trades, adding there would be a massive need for these skills too.

A councillor from East Riding noted there was a huge lag between deciding you need more skills, and then delivering them. He spoke about Siemens renewable energy investment in his area, and how they employed thousands of engineers that acted to draw in all of the engineers working in SMEs nearby.

Rory O’Neill, Sellafield Ltd, pointed out that as an organisation Sellafield Ltd recruited 180 apprenticeships this year, a quarter of who were female, much higher than the national average. He argued that this needed to be addressed by the supply chain too. Yet this provision was still not enough and he suggested that government had a role in helping to change that.

Greatrex responded to the questions from the floor, saying whilst it may be too late for the Siemens development there was still time to proactively provide the skills for future developments.

He stressed the need for the education system to play its part in this and added that the link needed to be made between acquiring such skills and the careers which would then be available. He argued that linking education and industry was something Labour had been poor at over many years.

On the idea of government assistance he admitted he had no quick answer, but there were suggestions that there was a role for local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) in this.

Rupprecht said they would start locally in terms of employment but said it was likely they would have to bring people in from outside. He provided some international context saying for his generation in America they were inspired into science and engineering by watching the space race unfold, and were galvanised into wanting to be part of that. He said that in China he often ran into the same issues regarding skills, and he commented that at times there was no connection made between algebra and maths and skills.

On diversity he said there was now a great stimulus to reach out to communities not traditionally involved in these industries.

Tindale called for an active industrial policy, and he argued that LEPs need to be thinking longer term and have a role in skill development.

Lord O’Neill raised the question of decommissioning which he said would create just as much demand for labour as the running of power stations. He added that we tended to underestimate our abilities in the UK, and spoke of those companies working to progress engineering skills.

He suggested that industries should be encouraged to work together to come up with common standards of capability to help ease the movement of skilled people across different but related sectors. He argued the state needed to show more leadership on these issues and stressed it could not all be left to the markets.

Brendan Sweeny of Barrow-in-Furness Council said it was important to also get older people to consider reskilling and entering these industries. He also spoke of the need for basic physical infrastructure to support more workers.

An advisor to Sheffield University’s advanced manufacturing research centre spoke of the work that was being done in that centre to develop these skills. He suggested that universities look at themselves and ask whether they were actually part of the real economy, and if not, to start being so.

Discussion then turned to the extent to which the Government had led on these issues. Tindale thought to an extent that they had, however Lord O’Neil said whilst they had “willed the ends but had yet to will the means.” He went on to say further education colleges were often underfunded, and also that many apprenticeships that had been offered were those that were low in capital investment.

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