The Masters in decommissioning nuclear power stations

The Government is getting behind nuclear energy - and experts are now in demand, says Nick Jackson

Thursday 07 December 2006 01:00

Twenty years ago it was the bogeyman of the green movement; now some see nuclear energy as our best hope of avoiding global meltdown. Nuclear power is back on the agenda. And so is nuclear education. Tens of millions are being spent on research institutes, centres, and masters and doctoral programmes covering every aspect of the science.

This year the Government announced its decision to build a new generation of nuclear power stations. At the same time Britain's 14 nuclear power stations are coming to the end of their lifetimes, with half due to be decommissioned by 2010, and only one left by 2023. Just under a quarter of our electricity comes from nuclear power. By 2023 it will be closer to 4 per cent. So there is plenty to keep nuclear specialists, whether engineers, physicists, chemists, environmentalists or policy wonks busy in the next few years.

Extremely busy, in fact; there are far fewer specialists than there ought to be, according to those in the industry. The promise of new builds and the challenges of decommissioning come at a time of a serious skills shortage of nuclear experts in Britain. In 1980 there were nearly 9,000 nuclear researchers working in research and development. Now there are only 1,000.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is looking to do something about that. They have already invested £10m over four years in doctoral and post-doctoral research at a consortium of universities lead by Manchester and Imperial, and another £2m is in the pipeline for postgraduates concerned with the economics and sociology of the sustainability of nuclear power. The £10m is seen as a starting-off point, filling the gaps that already exist. If Britain is serious about developing new nuclear stations, these one-off projects must transform into ongoing investment. The Nuclear Decommissioning Agency (NDA) is providing scholarships for these courses and others, and is building a £20m nuclear research facility in West Cumbria.

Decommissioning existing plants is itself a huge job. Sellafield will not be fully decommissioned until 2030 and active work on the site is expected for another 125 years. It is a process that involves not only nuclear specialists but also deconstruction experts who need to be trained in the hazards of taking apart a nuclear facility.

This has led to the Agency offering scholarships for Lancaster University's MSc in decommissioning and environmental clean-up. One of a handful of nuclear MScs that have sprung up recently, the course started in 2004 and now has 29 part-time students. Most of these work in the supply chain of the decommissioning business, for consultancies, logistics companies and construction firms involved in the process.

The two-year course covers project management, safety, decommissioning technology and robotics, and environmental awareness. Caroline Hamilton, 26, started the course last year. A mechanical engineering graduate, she says the new understanding of Sellafield's waste legacy has been invaluable. Several of the students on the MSc are non-graduates with industry experience, while others come from different parts of the nuclear industry. "The shared knowledge has been really useful in understanding how different sectors apply safety and environmental models," says Hamilton.

At Manchester the UK's first EngD in nuclear engineering began this year. The university's four-year course is getting £4m from the EPSRC to train 50 research engineers in every aspect of nuclear power, from waste management through reactor technology to environmental issues and the socio-economic context for nuclear power.

EngDs - industry-friendly doctorates - are an increasingly common feature on the academic landscape. Manchester's nuclear EngD students spent most of their time placed with their sponsor company. They also study for a Management Diploma from Manchester Business School. "I'm killing two birds with one stone," says Adrian Coville, 22, a physics graduate who is doing his EngD on nuclear waste management with AMEC-NNC. "I'm doing the technical work at university and getting hands-on experience at a company."

Working with Imperial College and specialists from Bristol, Leeds, Sheffield, and Strathclyde, the new EngD is the first of its kind. The timing could not have been better. "All of a sudden there are new opportunities that this time last year you couldn't have foreseen," says course director Professor Andrew Sherry. "Now there's an idea that nuclear power has a part to play in energy supply."

The EngD is not the only new nuclear doctoral research. Last year saw the launch of Keep the Nuclear Option Open (KNOO), based at Imperial College, which funds 44 doctoral and post-doctoral researchers at seven universities. There is £6m coming from the EPSRC, and Professor Robin Grimes, who heads KNOO, says it's the largest research council grant on nuclear fission for at least 20 years.

"The aim is to enable the UK to be an informed customer," says Professor Grimes. "At the moment we don't really have enough highly trained people even to facilitate the existing industry."

As well as looking at reactors and waste, KNOO researchers are working on developing generation IV systems, with passive safety systems that, according to Professor Grimes, would prevent accidents like Three Mile Island by guaranteeing that the reactor would return to an inherently safe condition in a potentially dangerous situation. More than a quarter of the research programmes focus on dealing with nuclear waste. "It's amazing how little we understand about nuclear waste," says Professor Grimes. "But we're making great strides."

One researcher helping to make those strides is Emily Michie, 20, who is doing a PhD at Imperial in one of the ceramics used to store nuclear waste. She studies the effect of nuclear waste over time on apatite, a calcium phosphate mineral that makes up 40 per cent of our bones, using atomic computer simulations. "It's quite exciting that this is an area that needs to be dealt with," says Michie. "It doesn't matter what the politicians decide, we've got a waste legacy that needs dealing with. Science can facilitate that."

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