The debate about nuclear power arouses passion on both sides. But a government commitment to build new reactors has been welcomed by further education colleges offering nuclear industry-related qualifications, especially those in, or near to, economically depressed areas.
But not everyone is happy. One anti-nuclear-power group is questioning a decision by the South West Regional Development Agency (SWRDA) to grant £2m towards the cost of a specialist nuclear education facility at Bridgwater College, Somerset. The South West Energy Skills Centre will specialise in nuclear training.
“The government said there wouldn’t be any subsidies for the nuclear industry and we regard this is as a hidden one,” says Stop Hinkley’s co-ordinator, Jim Duffy.
But those in favour of a new plant at Hinkley claim it will have a resounding impact on Somerset’s economy. It’s estimated that 4,000 jobs will be created during the construction phase and hundreds more in the power station’s lifetime. Energy firm EDF says it wants local firms and workers fully involved. The facility will double the number of training places it can offer, which will lead to more engineering jobs and construction jobs that can be directly employed by the nuclear industry.
The area has seen a steady loss of manufacturing jobs over the years. Wage levels are low, a high proportion of the workforce is low skilled, and educational attainment is below average. “It [the training centre] provides a solid base on which to build routes to higher-level employment and university-level training,” says Suzanne Bond, the SWRDA’s executive director of people and skills.
Bridgwater College principal Fiona McMillan expects that the commitment to new-build will stimulate interest among 16- to 18-years-olds. “The industry was seen to be declining,” she says. “Now there’s potential for long-term careers.”
The college has been working with EDF to inform young people about nuclear energy, and the British Nuclear Energy Society, a lobbying and educational body, has visited to talk about potential careers.
Recently, the college started offering the 14-16 diploma in engineering. “We also have 72 16- to 18-year-old engineering students on full-time two-year programmes, many of whom will see the nuclear industry as a great career route, and be able to study at HE level locally,” says McMillan.
Until recently, the nuclear story was one of power stations nearing the end of their life and, with that, a demand for specialist courses on decommissioning – cleaning up sites and making the waste secure. This requires an understanding of nuclear physics, engineering, reactor design and much else.
Since nuclear decommissioning programmes began in 2007, Bridgwater College has trained more than 100 employees from Magnox South, the company that clears up sites for the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, and from the industry’s supply chain, by offering NVQs related to decommissioning and radiation protection. It has also begun offering a foundation degree in decommissioning in conjunction with the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan).
But a shift in government policy has earmarked 10 sites deemed suitable for future nuclear plants. They are Bradwell, in Essex; Braystones, Kirksanton and Sellafield, in Cumbria; Hartlepool; Heysham, Lancashire; Hinkley Point, Somerset; Oldbury, Gloucestershire; Sizewell, Suffolk; and Wylfa, in North Wales. Braystones and Kirksanton are the only new locations.
Now colleges are preparing to train people starting out in a wide range of careers building up to and running the industry. Blackpool and the Fylde College, in Lancashire, offers a foundation degree in nuclear engineering (plant and process). The college sees it as addressing a skills deficit. It is designed to attract students from FE programmes – “an important market”– such as those doing national and higher national-level certificates in electrical, electronic and mechanical engineering.
Simon Hughes, Blackpool and Fylde’s head of engineering and computing, describes the government’s backing of nuclear new-build as “music to our ears” in terms of supporting the local economy. “It’s very important to us – the north-west is definitely depressed,” he says. “We’re very excited – we have a large engineering department and can upscale easily”.
“While the priority is to meet immediate demand within the industry, the degree course is written in a way so anyone with the right skills set can access it. We’re getting inquiries from people we wouldn’t ordinarily expect, and from companies we don’t normally deal with.”
If plants are built on all the possible sites – the government anticipates the first reactors being operational by 2020 – Cumbria would be home to three of them. This is potentially a boost to Workington-based Lakes College. Three years ago, it became the first FE college to offer UCLan’s foundation degree in decommissioning.
It is thought that if only one of these sites is built, it would create 10,000 construction jobs, and a further 1,200 in operating it. These are likely to be in the field of mechanical engineering, chemical engineering and nuclear handling. Other more indirect jobs will also be created, providing a regeneration of local communities.
An expansion of nuclear energy is unlikely to see significant opposition in the further education sector, it seems.