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Nuclear special: Nuclear know how

As the UK prepares to build a new generation of nuclear power stations, the industry finds itself desperately short of the skills it needs. Antony Oliver explains how the National Skills Academy for Nuclear hopes to help.

It is nearly three decades since construction started on the Suffolk coast at Sizewell B − the UK’s last new nuclear power station − and almost 15 years since it first started generating power.

In an industry where the impact of its activity and the lifecycle of its facilities are usually measured in centuries and millennia, these timescale could, perhaps, be seen as not very long at all.

But three decades is certainly more than enough time for many of those responsible for the design and construction of this £3.7bn concrete and steel power generator to have moved on.

Gaps in the skill base

“We could soon have significant gaps in the nuclear skill base as many of those still in the industry are coming towards the end of their careers and the industry is going through a period of fundamental change and development,” says National Skills Academy for Nuclear chief executive Jean Llewellyn.

“We need to encourage more young people into the nuclear industry where there are many exciting career development opportunities,” she adds.

The academy is an employer-led organisation and has three years of pump-priming government funding to get itself up and running. This comes to an end in 18 months time and after that Llewellyn has to make the academy self supporting.

At present it has 50 associate members who each contribute towards the running cost of the organisation and, as board members, to the strategic direction of its growth. The target is to increase this to 100 by the end of 2010.

The first thing to note is that the academy is not a training provider − it runs no courses and employs no teaching staff. Instead its role is to work with the industry to help to address the skills needs of employers and ensure that world class training is available.

Three main benefits

In essence associate members get three main benefits from the academy.

First, it is able to help employers gain better access to government funding for training. Its knowledge of what grants are available and specifically how to get them is invaluable.

Employers can, for example, claim up to £5,000 per employee if staff are taken on and given approved training. It also has the capability to pool training needs across employers to leverage efficiencies.

Second, it works hard to guarantee quality and appropriateness of training on offer in the market. Members therefore have access to accredited providers delivering the most appropriate training. This includes developing courses at universities and colleges.

The academy’s current higher education associate members are Cranfield University School of Management, the Open University, the University of Liverpool, the University of Central Lancashire and the University of Portsmouth.

Third, the academy offers a vital networking platform, for businesses in this expanding sector to compare notes and benchmark their own performance.

Llewellyn explains that every member firm requires specific services from the academy depending on its size, activity and ability. For this reason individual action plans are drawn up for each member to help employers to understand where help is available.

The Nuclear Skills Passport scheme

But as well as helping individual firms, the academy is also about ensuring the industry maintains its high standard of safety and quality. At the heart of this activity and ambition is the new Nuclear Skills Passport scheme.

This has now been progressed to a working prototype form but will soon become the key measure of both on-going competence and capability for nuclear industry employee.

Last month the academy’s board agreed and formally accepted that in future the use of these passports would be “highly desirable” in all facilities and on all contracts.

“The decision was a really big achievement,” says Llewellyn. “The key thing is to get a standardisation of training in the industry, but not just at the base level. We need to be pushing up from the bottom.”

“The key thing is to get a standardisation of training in the industry, but not just at the base level. We need to be pushing up from the bottom.”

Jean Llewellyn, National Skills Academy for Nuclear

She points out that this means ensuring that the passport does not simply become a bureaucratic box ticking procedure but is actually developed as a means to drive continuous improvement. “The next challenge is how to keep the validity of the passport,” she says. “And what would you have to do to lose it?”

The main driver when it comes to skills training is of course safety and this pervades all the training supported by the academy. This point is underlined by the recent inclusion of the Health and Safety Executive as its 50th member.

As Llewellyn puts it, one accident would have a disastrous effect on the industry’s ability to both win over a sceptical public and attract the best staff to work in the industry.

The academy has a big ongoing remit to rejuvenate the sector and to introduce new systems and processes to help provide “a sustainable, skilled, competent and safe UK nuclear workforce to achieve current and future demands”.

State of the art training

One such physical highlight is the new Energus Centre on the University of Cumbria’s so-called Energy Coast campus in West Cumbria. This state of the art training facility opens next month and will see thousands of students and trainees pass through its doors over the coming months and years to learn skills specific to the offshore and onshore energy industries.

“It was originally going to be just focused on nuclear,” explains Llewellyn, pointing out that the main customer is Sellafield. “But expansion in the renewables industry means that it now includes wind and solar etcetera.”

“Our biggest challenge is to prove that we are sustainable after three years.”

Jean Llewellyn, National Skills Academy for Nuclear

Hopefully, says Llewellyn, Energus will be the first of many dedicated training facilities for the power sector.

In the south west the academy is looking to set a partnership with Bridgewater College and other academies are planned for Dounreay and Anglesey.

“With the nuclear new build agenda now moving ahead the whole focus is shifting,” she says. However, there will continue to be a huge demand for skills − and a huge demand for the continuous development of new skills − as the £80bn nuclear decommissioning programme ploughs on.

“Our biggest challenge is to prove that we are sustainable after three years,” she says. “For industry to continue to fund us we have to ensure that we are useful and have a role.”

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