Helena Pozniak
+44 7990 518862

Channel your energy in the right direction

The Telegraph
With the future of the nuclear sector assured, graduate schemes promise rewarding long-term careers

Few options would have lured Katie Bannister from her fledgling career in the classroom, but the prospect of coming up close to a nuclear reactor tipped the balance. “I absolutely loved teaching, but EDF Energy’s nuclear scheme appealed to me more.” When her fast-track teacher training ended, Bannister decided to become a chemical engineer, joining the UK arm of the Frenchowned energy company in 2012. She relished the chance to examine Sizewell B, Britain’s first Americanstyle pressurised water reactor when it was brought offline last year for refuelling. “The outage [when the power is shut down] is an incredible time. I was able to look at parts of the reactor I had previously only seen in pictures,” she says. Since joining EDF Energy, which owns and operates eight of the UK’s 10 nuclear power stations, Bannister, 26, has moved around various departments, been mentored, trained and met the chief executive. Now she is joining a team that operates, shuts down and starts up the plant safely. She is one of some 60 to 70 science and engineering graduates hired by EDF every year to join a one-year scheme that covers all aspects of operating nuclear power plants. Since the UK government approved two new nuclear reactors, and placed nuclear power at the heart of its drive to meet carbonreduction targets, the sector is hungry for engineers, and is seeing rising interest from graduates. The civil nuclear sector employs around 44,000 people in the UK, and industry studies say it needs nearly 1,500 more graduates and apprentices, on average, every year. Most major companies within the nuclear sector operate graduate training schemes. “A lot of students don’t study much nuclear science in an undergraduate degree, but company training can be very broad,” says Dr Paul Norman, senior lecturer in nuclear physics at the University of Birmingham and course director of a nuclear physics masters there. “Now nuclear has a longer-term future; new plants will operate for some 60 years and it has become a more competitive field.” While graduates might be drawn by prospects of new builds, says Norman, they may eventually find themselves in other parts of the sector — from maintaining the UK’s nuclear submarines to processing and manufacturing nuclear fuel, operating UK nuclear sites or dismantling redundant facilities. Much cutting-edge science within the sector will occur around decommissioning, as 19 of the UK’s nuclear sites are due to be dismantled in the coming years. Some universities, such as Birmingham and Manchester, offer specialist nuclear undergraduate degrees, but at graduate level firms tend to look for a good generic science, maths or engineering degree — EDF usually asks for a 2:1 or a postgraduate qualification. “You don’t need a solid background in nuclear to enter the industry,” says Bannister. “The training here is quite specific. There are lots of other ways to show employers your interest — stay up to date with the news, or visit the stations in advance.” Some stations even open their visitor centre to the public. In a move to fill the gap created by an ageing workforce, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), a public body that ensures the safe clean-up of the nuclear industry’s civil nuclear programme, has designed a broad graduate programme. Nucleargraduates, which operates across the industry, is sponsored by a variety of companies, including Magnox, Sellafield, Rolls-Royce, the NDA and the Environment Agency, and around 20 organisations are involved in the training. Around 40 graduates are recruited annually for a two-year programme involving three eight-month secondments with separate firms. This gives them a political and commercial understanding of the sector to complement technical knowledge. The scheme is now in its sixth year and numbers have steadily increased. Applicants are mostly engineers and scientists, along with a number of commercial graduates, and all undergo the same recruitment process. Potential sponsors “bid” for candidates, with most offering the prospect of a job after training. Salaries start at £24,000, with a “golden hello” of £1,000. “This is an ideal scheme for new graduates or good engineers who want to transfer to the industry,” says Jean Llewellyn, chief executive of the National Skills Academy Nuclear. There is no shortage of physicists or chemical or civil engineers applying for Cavendish Nuclear’s four-year graduate scheme, which offers 40 places a year. “Typically we turn away some 100 applicants for every place; we can afford to be choosy in some areas,” says Emma Lyon, head of learning and development at Cavendish Nuclear, a wholly owned subsidiary of Babcock International Group. But there is a dearth of electrical and mechanical engineers among applicants, she says. While Babcock and US engineering group Fluor have won a £7 billion contract, announced in March, to clean up some of Britain’s oldest nuclear plants, the company has not yet commented on how this might affect graduate hires. As with many graduate schemes in the sector, Cavendish Nuclear likes graduates to be flexible and move around the UK on short placements in the first two years — in return they will gain a solid foundation in applied engineering, and be guided towards Chartered status in less than five years. Engineering graduates might be involved in the design and planning of a new build, or in operating a power plant, managing nuclear waste or handling fuel. Another leading graduate scheme, run by engineering, project management and consultancy firm Amec, offers some 250 places a year — and nearly half of those hired take the “clean energy” route, which includes all aspects of the nuclear life cycle. “We offer a huge amount of experiential learning over two years,” says Nicola Mason, Amec’s engineering director, Europe. As with other schemes, Amec moves graduates between projects within the UK. “We’re flexible and we like our graduates to be flexible with us,” says Mason. While applications can be made all year round, they peak in spring. This year the National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL), a governmentrun nuclear services technology provider, will recruit some 30 to 40 graduates and postgraduates — particularly chemical, mechanical and electrical engineers, scientists and mathematicians — and robotics experts, to tackle the problem of how to dispose of nuclear waste. The NNL, which runs a structured two-year programme, pays graduates £27,000, slightly above the £25,000 offered by most other schemes, and asks for a 2:1 or above. “Nuclear is an industry of real opportunity at the moment,” says Llewellyn, “and it leaves you with open horizons. Many transfer from there into renewables or oil and gas — and vice versa. Most companies actively encourage the professional development of their employees.”

Back to career articles

Back to Portfolio