A SKILLS CRISIS in the UK nuclear industry is jeopardising operating safety, experts said this week.
The shortage of trained engineers entering the nuclear industry is also threatening to exclude the UK from multi-billion pound business opportunities in decommissioning and possible newbuild nuclear projects.
Professor of energy conversion at Newcastle University Ian Fells this week told NCE that the industry's ageing professional profile and virtually non-existent graduate training programme was a recipe for future problems.
'The vast majority of people in the industry are past middle age,' said Fells. He warned that the nuclear industry's nose-diving public image meant few engineering students regarded it as a career option. Recent revelations about safety standards and working conditions at BNFL's Sellafield plant have aggravated the situation.
Fells said there were not enough people with even a basic understanding of issues relevant to working in the industry. He added: 'If reprocessing is abandoned there is even less impetus for graduates to go into it.'
This view was backed by another prominent industry source who told NCE: 'I believe the industry may not be able to shut itself down in an emergency, let alone carry on operating safely.'
Many engineers working in the nuclear industry are drawn from other fields of engineering including civil, chemical, electrical and mechanical. But there is increasing concern in the industry that UK universities admission body UCAS now lists no undergraduate nuclear engineering courses. In 1994 two were offered. Most postgraduate courses are industry sponsored but academics told NCE that places are hard to fill.
Bath University nuclear materials group manager Gareth Neighbour said he thought the skills issue would become crippling in less than a decade. 'The nuclear industry has skills internally, but I give it only ten years before they run out,' he commented.
Experience of building and running reactors is vital when it comes to decommissioning or upgrading reactors, Neighbour stated. 'There will be a time when the UK has to build new, and we won't have the people to do it.'
Gibb director Bob Irving stressed that high levels of technical competence are needed by the nuclear industry to take on future workload. But he said firms working in the nuclear field were having to take on the training themselves.
The ageing profile of engineers working in the nuclear industry overseas also means that skills will be hard to import if home grown supplies dry up. The European director of French energy firm Cogema, Jean-Francois Poupard, said he was also becoming increasingly concerned about the level of recruitment.
A spokesman for BNFL agreed there was concern that skills necessary for building nuclear reactors were fast disappearing. However, he claimed expertise in decommissioning was growing as more work came on line in the UK and around the world.