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Energy: Britain’s new nuclear Family – is the supply chain up to the task of building and running the new wave of nuclear power plants?

The last Magnox reactor is due to be switched off in December, nearly 60 years after Britain’s first nuclear power station, Calder Hall in Cumbria, began generating. As the Magnox reactors have gradually been retired, so too have thousands of people skilled in building and running nuclear power plants.

With their crucial skills in short supply, the challenge of building the country’s first new nuclear power station in a generation is daunting. The Chinese/French consortium funding the new plant at Hinkley Point in Somerset says that at least 60% of the supply chain used in its construction will be British.

At the peak of construction, up to 5,600 workers will be on site. But given that the power station will be using a foreign reactor design, and no nuclear plants have been built in Britain for almost two decades, where will such a large, and skilled, domestic workforce come from?

The challenges are about more than money

With a projected price tag of £16bn, and an ongoing European Commission investigation into whether the government’s plans to subsidise the plant constitute illegal state aid, the debate so far has been dominated by the project’s complex funding arrangements.

But this focus, while understandable, risks overlooking the equally vital supply side of the equation.

Hinkley C is just the first of up to 10 new nuclear power stations planned across Britain. Clearly, building such a huge fleet of nuclear projects will leave the construction industry with a serious skills gap.

In the short term, this could force those charged with building these vast and complex sites to buy in capacity and expertise from abroad. Quality assurance and security clearance are essential when using foreign contractors on such sensitive projects, but these need not pose major issues – a multinational team speaking more than 20 languages has been working on the EPR power station at Olkiluoto in Finland.

But for Britain as a whole, the problem with importing the necessary construction expertise is that it is likely to come at a premium, could reduce the value for money for energy consumers, and will do little to improve to the UK construction industry’s long-term capability.

Investing not just in the plants, but in Britain’s capacity to build them

Given the government’s commitment to use nuclear power to cut carbon emissions and keep Britain’s lights on, the country must invest significantly in its nuclear supply chain.

This is already happening. Less than a decade since its creation, Manchester University’s Dalton Nuclear Institute has become a world leader in nuclear research and learning. Centres of excellence have also emerged at the National Nuclear Laboratory and the Nuclear AMRC, and the National Skills Academy Nuclear is coordinating a range of applied courses on behalf of the nuclear industry – from CAD to radiation protection.

Such investment in Britain’s skills base is essential if we are to be a provider – rather than just a user – of key infrastructure.

For our reawakening nuclear sector – and British infrastructure as a whole – to compete on the world stage and be an exportable asset, it needs the support and encouragement of government, academia and institutional investors.

Fishing in the same pond

With an estimated £200bn due to be invested in the UK power sector over the next decade, nuclear is just one sector seeking to recruit the brightest and best. The offshore wind sector faces a similar challenge – as a new technology, its supply chain has yet to fully mature.

In addition, the big players of the rail, water and aviation sectors are all fishing in the same talent pond.

Turner & Townsend is doing its bit – last year 20 graduate trainees joined our nuclear team, and this will continue to be a growth sector for us.

As programme managers, our expertise at mitigating investment risk and delivering supply chain outperformance will be crucial for the industry as it rises to the challenge.

For the nuclear industry to upskill quickly, it cannot just rely on graduates and school leavers choosing nuclear as a career – it must also identify and attract skilled professionals from similarly high hazard and highly regulated industries.

But ultimately all stakeholders, from the government to the energy companies and the construction industry itself, must work in partnership to create the ‘collaborative win-win’ delivery model needed to achieve predictable outcomes.

Only then can the construction industry have confidence in its ability to deliver the power generating capacity Britain has waited so long for.

  • Mike Pigott is power sector lead at Turner & Townsend

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