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Nuclear energy is a powerful source for grad students

The Independent
Atomic plants provide career possibilities for a broad range of skills

Nuclear engineering student Thomas Davis wasn’t born when the UK’s first nuclear power plant was built in 1956, but he knows his career prospects are healthy for years to come. A student at the University of Birmingham, he’s relishing tackling thorny subjects - nuclear physics, material science, fluid flow and thermodynamics, to name but a few. “I’m a strong believer that nuclear power will be here for the future and is needed to sustain our energy requirements,” he says. He wants to follow his degree with a PhD in pure nuclear physics. “My course has opened so many routes – such as heading into nuclear power generation and the operation of reactors, developing and building new nuclear reactors, nuclear submarines, nuclear research, or decommissioning.” And with his transferable skills he’s not forever tied to nuclear power. “I’ve got the theoretical, engineering and materials background which would allow me to enter nearly any industry.”

When the government gave the green light for a new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point in Somerset last month, industry and academics celebrated. While the nuclear sector is relatively small in the UK, it’s economically important, with some 56,000 UK employees and a forecast need of some 1500 recruits a year. With an ageing workforce moving towards retirement, the skills shortage is particularly acute. As industry analysts point out, there’s currently a dearth of skilled professionals to support the UK’s existing nuclear facilities quite apart from new construction which will require civil and mechanical engineers. “(Hinkley Point) is great news for the UK nuclear industry and engineering subjects looking for a job in the nuclear sector,” says Professor Bill Lee, director of the Centre for Nuclear Engineering at Imperial College London. While Imperial students – and many others at nuclear specialist universities - are well-funded by engineering and energy firms, Lee and colleagues expect funds and work opportunities to rise significantly. Only last month, for instance, engineering consultancy AMEC announced it will create more than 300 skilled jobs within its nuclear arm, including safety consultants, project managers, mechanical and electrical engineers.

Career choice in the nuclear sector is famously wide. Decommissioning of the old fleet of nuclear stations is an area most hungry for new blood, and in the short term civil and mechanical engineers will be sought after for the new builds. Areas such as processing and manufacturing nuclear fuel, maintaining the UK’s nuclear powered submarines, technical roles within the civil service or safety regulation will all want nuclear-savvy professionals, says Lee. “People with experience of working on a nuclear licensed site – or those who’ve been trained about it like our students will be in demand,” he says. Imperial, which offers its students live reactor training on the UK’s only civilian research reactor, created its MSc in Nuclear Engineering in 2010 in anticipation of new build of power plants in the UK, and offers eight scholarships ranging from £1000 to £5000. “Our MSc is pretty intensive and involves working closely with a company,” says Lee, who adds that these collaborations often result in a job offer. And the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and companies such as EDF, EDF Energy, Rolls-Royce, AMEC and the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) among others are currently sponsoring a portfolio of more than £25 million of nuclear-related research projects at Imperial. In addition, he says, the EPSRC have just funded a large consortium – DISTINCTIVE – led by the University of Leeds to work with industry on decommissioning and clean-up projects.

This is indeed a good time for the industry, says the University of Birmingham, which has seen numbers steadily climb on its MSc in Physics and Technology of Nuclear Reactors from about a dozen during the nuclear doldrums of the 1990s to more than 50 postgraduates over the last three years. “A great time to get out into the industry, get some experience and be well placed for when the new power stations come online,” says Dr Paul Norman, director of postgraduate programmes for Birmingham Centre for Nuclear Education and Research (CNER). Birmingham’s course – which actually began in 1956 – is the longest running MSc in civil nuclear power in the UK. It’s supported by a steering committee of nuclear industry companies and fully funds all home students with a 2:1 or first – those with a 2:2 receive 80 per cent of fees. As a traditional taught postgraduate course suited to recent graduates in physics, engineering, maths, chemistry and materials science, it feeds a huge range of nuclear industry strands – from nuclear fusion research, energy giants, companies linked to decommissioning, nuclear submarines, and consultancies. “We serve the industry as a whole, not just power stations,” says Norman, who believes a postgraduate qualification offers a fast track and healthier career prospects. “Our students can get started much more rapidly,” he says.

Birmingham’s MSc combines deep coverage of the underlying theory with a strong practical nuclear laboratory component, lectures from industry experts, and a final research project based occasionally within academia, but more usually within the industry itself. Before even reaching the end of the Birmingham course, more than two thirds of students will already have jobs or PhDs lined up. “Most of the remainder will be snapped up within a few months of finishing,” says Norman.

An entirely different postgraduate offering comes in the form of the MSc in nuclear science and technology from NTEC – a consortium of UK institutions – including the Universities of Manchester, Birmingham, Central Lancaster, Liverpool and Sheffield among others, which each offer short intensive week-long modules over the course of a year. This was set up in 2002 to meet the perceived shortage of specialist higher education for the nuclear industry, by drawing on institutions’ individual strengths. Participants can choose their focus – be it reactor physics or nuclear waste disposal - by selecting eight out of some 20 modules on offer. Each module is delivered over the course of a week at a particular institution and participants are split roughly equally between part and full time study– which suits both professionals seeking to increase their know-how and full-time postgraduates. While delivery is short and sweet, don’t underestimate the study time required around the week-long blocks, says Dr John Roberts, who coordinates the course – each module requires some 150 hours of study time.

Courses from NTEC also serve towards professionals’ continuing professional development and modules can be studied individually. In fact the nuclear industry is well-served for CPD – in 2012 the National Skills Academy for Nuclear helped employers club together with the Open University to launch the postgraduate-level Certificate of Nuclear Professionalism – which covers seven modules of interest and aims to prepare professionals for working in the nuclear industry – Aston’s Centre for Executive Development, for instance, has just provided this year’s cohort with a commercial awareness course. “You don’t have to have a PhD or an MSc to enter the industry but you do need to have some top up training to understand how to apply an engineering discipline for example in a nuclear context,” says Jean Llewellyn, chief executive of the National Skills Academy for Nuclear. This programme, which targets graduates, and professionals seeking to transfer from another sector such as oil and gas, has some 40 participants signed up for next year – many with bursaries and funding from their employers. “Nuclear isn’t a huge industry but there are some fascinating opportunities,” says Llewellyn. “In the UK we are beginning to decommission parts that have never been decommissioned before – it’s cutting edge technology. There are real opportunities to make a name for yourself.”

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