Working in physics: Generating job options
There are numerous opportunities for physics graduates within the nuclear-power industry, and British Energy's graduate training scheme provides a way of sampling them all, as James Eberlein explains.
When I left the University of Reading in 2005 with a BSc in physics and meteorology, it was an easy decision to join the energy industry. I had studied climate science during my degree and I wanted to do something that would help curb the impact of electricity production and confront the challenge of climate change. With my physics background, the nuclear industry seemed a logical place to invest my skills and a few months later I joined British Energy as a graduate trainee.
The firm is the largest producer of electricity and the lowest carbon emitter of the major UK electricity generators. I had never heard of the company before I started looking for jobs, but I soon found out that it has a workforce of 6000 people spread over nine power stations, which include seven advanced gas-cooled reactors and the UK's only pressurized water reactor at Sizewell B in Suffolk. The company also operates a coal-fired power station, and has several engineering and corporate offices across the UK.
British Energy's graduate training scheme is a two-year programme that gives graduates the chance to experience every facet of the nuclear-energy business by undertaking a series of "attachments". These attachments are tailored to each graduate's academic background and personal interests, and they enable trainees to experience every department within the company — from reactor systems to environmental safety. The programme is also interspersed with technical training and soft-skills courses during which trainees learn about the company's overall aims. During the scheme I moved between four different nuclear power stations as well as the central engineering support office in Gloucester, which provides specialist technical expertise and support for the power-plant fleet.
My bespoke training plan began within the nuclear-safety group at Dungeness B nuclear power station in Kent. My role was to help ensure that the site complied with safety regulations, which involved analysing and interpreting daily reactor-performance data and writing guidance material on control rod position indications for the engineers who operate the reactor. I joined just as one of the reactors was returning from its triennial maintenance shutdown. To support this operation I had to identify all the coolant gas temperatures and pressures encountered during a start-up, to ensure that the reactor would remain within new operating specifications. I was given responsibility from the beginning, and by the end of the five-week placement I had attained a good understanding of operational reactor physics.
My next attachment was at Heysham 2 nuclear power station in Lancashire, where I spent six months. Part of my time there involved helping the technicians who operate the plant, i.e. turning valves and testing equipment. This work was physically challenging — especially having to test complex nitrogen equipment at 3 a.m. in a very warm area of the power station! I also worked in the supply-chain department at Heysham, which involved procuring spares and managing contracts, and did a stint with the work-management group during which I scheduled planned maintenance activities on safety-critical systems.
The skills that I picked up on this attachment enabled me to tackle my first major project, which involved planning a multimillion- pound programme for exchanging a 180 tonne generator stator (the stationary conductor-wrapped iron core) at Hinkley Point B nuclear power station in Somerset. This took three months of hard work at the central engineering-support office in Gloucester, after which I had to present my plan to the power station's management team. I was subjected to a barrage of questions, which was one of the toughest moments of my career so far.
Another highlight of my training was being involved in the periodic shutdown at the Sizewell B nuclear power station. This is a 24/7 operation during which the core fuel assemblies are removed from the reactor and transported underwater to the fuel storage ponds. In these ponds new fuel assemblies are mixed with the irradiated ones, tested extensively and then reloaded into the reactor. My role was to initiate and direct the movement of the fuel assemblies. This was an intricate task, based in the control room, which involved directing the operations team that was handling the fuel. It required maximum concentration at all times and proved to be quite stressful.
The British Energy graduate training scheme has given me the broadest possible range of assignments at a very exciting time for the nuclear industry in the UK. Last year, for example, I spent one week attending a business and finance course in Scotland, while the next week I was learning technical drawing and welding at the Royal Navy's School of Nuclear Engineering in Gosport.
I now have an excellent understanding of the civil nuclear industry, while the technical training courses and hands-on experience have given me the confidence to represent British Energy at many local, national and international events, including the International Youth Nuclear Congress held in Sweden and Finland. This event also gave me the chance to work with fellow nuclear professionals from the British Nuclear Energy Society's Young Generation Network.
British Energy wants to play a key role in building the UK's next generation of nuclear power plants. Until then, the company is improving the long-term reliability and extending the life of its power stations while producing more electricity and optimizing its plants. The graduate scheme — which is accredited by the Institute of Physics — has given me a fantastic overview of British Energy and how it goes about the business of generating electricity safely. Since completing the scheme, I have accepted a post at Dungeness B power station in Kent within the safety-case and reactor-physics team. A worldwide nuclear renaissance is gathering pace, and my aim is to be a leader in the safe provision of this low-carbon technology.
About the author
James Eberlein is in the nuclear-safety group at British Energy's Dungeness B power station on Romney Marsh, UK.
This article originally appeared in the January 2008 issue of Physics World
last edited: March 28, 2014