The skills gap for long term nuclear future
The world’s climate and energy crises continues to worsen with extreme weather, heatwaves and increasing global energy prices. The IEA’s net zero by 2050 pathway has identified the need for nuclear, including SMRs growing support for this in the UK, Canada, France and the US. Dr Aneeqa Khan from The University of Manchester discusses the steps needed to develop a framework to secure a long-term nuclear future.
Long term energy planning versus short term solutions
EDF is set to go ahead with the shutdown of the two reactors at Hinkley Point B on the 8th July and 1 August this summer, equivalent to a loss of almost a GW of power generation. EDF have also said they will extend the use of the West Burton A coal power plant, with discussions continuing to potentially keep a further 2 coal power plants open. Billed as ‘short term’ strategies, these interventions do not provide a long term solution, and contradict the aims of the UK Government’s Energy Security Strategy released in April 2022, which aims to deliver clean energy and commits to building one nuclear reactor a year.
We should be extending existing nuclear technologies to cover the bridging over to advanced nuclear reactors, which must continue to receive funding and support. Issues of finance, regulation, the role of Government, siting, public and community acceptance, as well as the integration of nuclear into wider energy strategies including heat and hydrogen must also be addressed. The energy security strategy needs to address training by working with universities and other education providers to ensure there is no skills shortages across these vital areas.
Investing in education and skills
COP26 highlighted the need for more young people to be trained to deliver nuclear energy goals. Government investment in nuclear education and training is needed with a key focus on advanced fission (including SMRs) and fusion reactor concepts.
This should include dedicated modules for undergraduate and postgraduate degrees across a range of disciplines; from science, to engineering and regulation, doctoral training centres that address the challenges in delivering advanced reactor concepts, as well as apprenticeships, and training opportunities in advanced reactor concepts for those already working in a relevant field. The University of Manchester offers a fully funded, four-year Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) PhD in GREEN (Growing skills for Reliable Economic Energy from Nuclear) in addition to the PhD Fusion Energy CDT.
A lack of adequate investment in skills and training could lead to a shortage in the skilled workforce, which the nuclear industry will need to combat the climate emergency, as part of a sustainable energy mix that includes renewables.
Climate change adversely affects countries and communities that have least contributed to it. Therefore shared knowledge skills may help to catalyse our global transition towards a low-carbon society. This may allow communities most affected by climate change to benefit from the use of new nuclear energy technology.
Policy makers and the nuclear industry need to work with communities directly in an open and transparent way and work with other industries such as housing, water, solar, and wind in order to find synergies and ways we can share mutual knowledge aiming to combat climate change. According to the World Nuclear Association, there are around 30 countries who are ‘considering, planning or starting nuclear power programmes.’ This includes Bangladesh (where it is predicted up to 1 in 7 people could be displaced by climate change by 2050) where construction of power plants have started, as well as countries with developing plans such as Nigeria, Kenya and Laos.
There are challenges in terms of the grid system – if we talk about large power plants it can be difficult to have large amounts of power in one place for an infrastructure not built for that. If the power plant needs to be taken offline for maintenance, this can be detrimental if it accounts for a significant amount of the electricity on the grid. AMRs (advanced modular reactors) and SMRs may be an answer for this as they will be much smaller. Grid infrastructure may require upgrading in general. Other challenges are the licensing of reactor designs, and often countries with developing nuclear rely on countries with developed nuclear power. Sharing skills will allow countries to have autonomy and support in developing nuclear power and therefore transitioning towards secure, clean energy.
There should also be a focus on countries with existing nuclear power, such as South Africa, Pakistan, and Mexico to further expand and collaborate. This will amplify the UKs position as a global leader on climate responsibility and also foster knowledge exchange of technologies, manufacturing and collaboration.
Only with a collaborative approach that crosses man made borders and incorporates multiple industries will we be able to address the skills gap – creating a future where nuclear plays a role in providing low carbon energy.
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