One of the great attractions of nuclear energy from an industrial policy point of view is that it requires the development and use of a number of skills which contribute to the wider strength of the UK’s industrial base. For example, there is a need for scientists, engineers and many other professionals who can design and build nuclear power plants, who can maintain nuclear power stations during their operating lives and who can support the operations of the fuel cycle (which include ‘enriching’ uranium to create reactor fuel, turning the fuel into pellets and assemblies for use in the power stations, transporting fuel safely and dealing with spent fuel when it comes out of power stations, for example by reprocessing it). There is a need for people who can take the power stations apart at the end of their lives ‘decommissioning’, who can develop underground waste disposal facilities and, in due course, who can operate these facilities. Health physicists and other radiation experts are also needed. Taking account of all these activities the nuclear industry in the UK currently employs over 40,000 people directly, with many thousands more jobs depending on the wages of nuclear workers, the need for various components and services and so on.
Together, the areas of new build, plant maintenance, fuel cycle, decommissioning and deep geological waste disposal will require a new generation of nuclear engineers and scientists. Because it is some years since the UK has built a new nuclear power station, and so has not been recruiting staff at a high rate, the UK nuclear workforce has an older average age than the average age of the total UK workforce, with a higher percentage expected to retire over the next 15 years. To meet these demands, the UK universities with nuclear expertise have developed programmes for both undergraduates and postgraduates – both taught courses and opportunities for research.
Ten years ago the situation looked dire. A report commissioned by the Health and Safety Executive in 2002 stated, ‘if nuclear education were a patient in a hospital it would be in intensive care’. It suggested that immediate action was needed if nuclear education was not to disappear entirely and recommended that the focus of nuclear education should be on postgraduate courses.
A small number of postgraduate nuclear courses, such as those at the Universities of Birmingham, Surrey and Liverpool, had survived the downturn in student numbers which followed the ‘dash for gas’ in the 1990s. In general, however, nuclear activity in universities consisted of a few individuals rather than major research groups.
To address this challenge as the arguments for nuclear new build began to gain pace, a grouping called the Nuclear Technology Education Consortium (NTEC) was formed in 2004. The consortium is now comprised of the Universities of Birmingham, Central Lancashire, Lancaster, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester and Sheffield, City University, London, Defence Academy - College of Management and Technology, Imperial College London and UHI Millennium Institute. Together these institutions represent more than 90% of the nuclear postgraduate teaching expertise residing in the UK's universities and research institutions.
The consortium brought together nuclear experts to provide over 20 different possible Master level course units (or ‘modules’) in one programme. And since the NTEC programme was totally new it could be designed flexibly to accommodate both full-time and part-time students, guided by the nuclear industry and its needs. (For example, modules are delivered in Monday-Friday blocks rather than day-release and include Continual Professional Development, postgraduate certificates and diplomas and a full MSc in Nuclear Science and Technology, which can be taken as a full-time programme over one year or part-time over three years.) The most popular modules can now be done through Distance Learning, adding extra flexibility.
Bringing together so many universities has allowed NTEC to provide very broad course contents. By 2010 some 22 modules were being offered; students need to complete eight of these modules successfully to be awarded a full MSc. MSc students are encouraged to do a Masters project while working in the industry and nuclear companies have proved very keen to sponsor students in this way. Numbers of students have been growing year on year.
NTEC demonstrated that students were once again becoming extremely interested in doing nuclear science and engineering courses. As a result, a range of new undergraduate and graduate programmes based in individual universities have been established. Lancaster University was the first in 2006 with an undergraduate MEng programme in Nuclear Engineering. Imperial College London and the Universities of Manchester and Leeds developed joint undergraduate courses (‘and/with Nuclear Engineering’) which allow mechanical and chemical engineers and material scientists to benefit from 25% nuclear content in their courses. The Physics departments at the Universities of Liverpool, the West of Scotland and Nottingham Trent have developed Physics with Nuclear Technology undergraduate degrees and full-time one year nuclear masters courses have been introduced by Imperial College London and the University of Cambridge.
The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) has been increasing its support for nuclear research and in particular for PhD students. The Nuclear Industrial Doctoral Centre (led by the University in Manchester in partnership with Imperial College London) has taken a different approach whereby ‘research engineers’ carry out their research primarily in industry with a project of direct relevance to the sponsoring company. Since its launch the course has doubled its number of students and over 600 people have engaged with the programme so far, including 143 full-time students and 350 short course attendees. NTEC has around 100 full- and part-time students and over 40 industrialists currently registered.
Of course, the outcome of such courses will be more successful if youngsters at school (and their teachers) know what is involved and can have their questions answered. To help with this a number of initiatives have been taken. For example:
The EPSRC is funding the development of supporting material for the teaching of nuclear topics at school. Through this project university material is being converted for schools to use in the classroom.
The Smallpeice Trust (an educational charity), Urenco (the company which enriches uranium for fuel in the UK) and the National Nuclear Laboratory are supporting an annual residential course at the University of Manchester for two hundred 14-16 year olds who are interested in a career in the nuclear industry; NNL also supports a Smallpeice residential course at Lancaster University.
Supported by the Nuclear Institute, the Universities of Manchester, Liverpool and York provide an annual training day on nuclear technologies for schoolteachers.
Urenco have launched primary school workshops which offer a fun and interactive way to learn about the scientific processes behind uranium enrichment. This is being done through their character Richie Enrichment who helps the children find out where their energy comes from, and how it is created.
The Young Generation Network was founded to enable the exchange of knowledge and awareness of the industry between older and younger generations. It aims to encourage young people within the nuclear industry to stay within the field and provide a resource for the future.
More details about the education courses on offer, a range of useful materials and other items of news are available at Nuclear Liaison (www.nuclearliaison.com) and its sister site NLTV (www.nltv.co.uk). Nuclear Liaison has been set up to list all the nuclear courses at UK universities, along with a directory of all the nuclear experts at UK universities. It lets prospective students, universities and industry that are interested in collaboration find out all the information on UK nuclear universities in one place. It also provides industry contacts for students who are looking for summer placements or graduate training schemes within the nuclear industry. NLTV allows site visitors access to a large number of recorded lectures that can be viewed online, allowing the greater spreading of information as well as providing a record of various events for knowledge management purposes.
The nuclear universities and nuclear education have come a long way in the last ten years and are now a thriving part of university education. Many newly qualified students have already registered as STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) Ambassadors, visiting schools to encourage the next generation of school children that the nuclear industry in the UK will provide them with a challenging, stimulating and long lasting career and making sure that nuclear science and engineering plays its full part in strengthening the UK’s technical base to meet our future challenges.