New beginnings for nuclear
Jeroen Veenstra describes how his enthusiasm for nuclear energy led him to a new country, a new language and a role in developing the energy future.
The UK nuclear industry has always been a very interesting area of work. The civil side of the industry dates back more than 50 years, beginning with four reactors at the Sellafield site in north-west England, and almost all of the reactors currently operating in the UK are of British design. Now, however, many of them are nearing the end of their lives and will be decommissioned, while plans for "new build" technology are well under way. The challenges involved in these two tasks are enormous, and they are part of what attracted me to my current job with EDF Energy.
I am originally from the Netherlands, and I studied applied physics at Delft University of Technology. I knew early on that I wanted to work in the nuclear industry, but although there is one small electricity-generating reactor in the south-west of the country, and my university operates a research reactor, the nuclear sector is not a big employer in the Netherlands (which, after all, sits on a huge underground bubble of natural gas). The country does import a lot of nuclear-generated electricity from Belgium and France, so I could have looked for a graduate job there, but at the time I wasn't that keen on French culture. Fortunately, I stumbled upon the Nuclear Graduate Training Scheme of what was then British Energy, and although I had never even visited the UK, I applied for the scheme and was accepted.
New graduate, new country
When I joined in 2003, the graduate scheme was a two-year programme, which enabled me to explore all aspects of the business, from operations at the power stations to central engineering support functions. The company provided a wide variety of training, encompassing both technical topics such as reactor technology and softer skills such as communication. For me, this programme was a great experience, because I got the chance to look around the company while still being able to focus on my interests in physics and fuel. I also managed to explore quite a bit of the UK and was delighted to see that – unlike my home country – it is not completely flat.
The duration of the graduate scheme was reduced to 12 months after British Energy became part of the French firm EDF in 2009 (so ironically, I ended up working for a French company after all), but graduates still get to experience all the same aspects as I did, just in less time. After the graduate scheme, I became a nuclear-fuel performance engineer in the company's engineering division, which is based near Gloucester. I was responsible for technical investigations into things like fuel failure mechanisms (such as interactions between fuel pellets and cladding) and monitoring fuel after its performance in the reactors. Most of this work was done for the company's 14 advanced gas-cooled reactors, which are at seven sites around the UK, but I also provided support to Sizewell B in Suffolk, which is our only pressurized water reactor.
This job required additional training on top of that provided by the graduate scheme, including software skills and more detailed instruction in reactor operation. I also obtained operational experience by visiting power plants, fuel manufacturing facilities and hot-cell laboratories, and by taking part in international conferences and events. Ultimately, this enabled me to be signed off as a "suitably qualified and experienced person" – our company's term for someone who can perform tasks independently and in accordance with nuclear safety requirements.
In 2010 I moved from EDF Energy's nuclear-generation engineering division to its nuclear new build business unit, which is responsible for the construction and operation of new reactors in the UK. My new role puts me in charge of the fuel design we will be using in the four European pressurized reactors (EPRs) that are scheduled to be built in the UK over the next decade. The EPR was mostly designed in France, and originally it was thought that we could just "drag and drop" this design into the UK. As it turns out, differences between the two countries' regulatory frameworks mean that it is more difficult than that, so we have been working closely with our French counterparts to understand and amend the design as required. This means that I travel across the Channel frequently, mostly to Lyon and Paris, and I am also learning French.
Currently, our focus is on getting confirmation with the UK regulator that the EPR is licensable in the UK. However, for the fuel itself, we are working on manufacturing and design requirements. This work is necessary because, even though fuel is one of the last things to go into a plant (and we haven't even started building yet), the lead time for having everything in place is very long. Ultimately, I need to make sure we have a "safety case" that allows us to justify loading fuel into the reactors.
If you pursue a career in the nuclear industry, I would highly recommend that you get involved in some kind of activity outside your own company. A good example is becoming a chartered physicist and/or chartered engineer. Applying for chartered status gives you an opportunity to benchmark yourself against other professionals in non-nuclear industries, and achieving it also helps build public confidence, as it demonstrates that people in the nuclear industry are skilled professionals who understand how to operate in a safe manner. My work as a fuel design engineer enabled me to become both a chartered physicist and a chartered engineer, and I now help others achieve the same status by acting as a mentor through my role as physics discipline chair for the company.
As in any industry, networking is very important for nuclear professionals. For new and recent graduates, a lot of activities takes place through the Young Generation Network (YGN), which is part of the Nuclear Institute. The YGN organizes a series of seminars known as Rough Guides to the Nuclear Industry, where people find out all about the basics of the industry (from naval nuclear to decommissioning), and in 2007 I organized one such seminar myself, with full support from EDF Energy. Closer to home, the Institute of Physics has a Nuclear Industry Group to promote the role of physics within the industry.
A positive outlook
EDF Energy is not the only group working on building new reactors in the UK. Two other consortia are also considering plans for a total of about half a dozen reactors, but their plans have been somewhat more affected by the accident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in 2011. Indeed, many companies and countries all over the world halted or delayed their plans for new nuclear plants in the wake of the Fukushima incident. In the UK, however, support for nuclear power is still strong, fuelled by the desire for secure energy supplies, reductions in carbon emissions and affordable electricity. At EDF Energy we have heavily scrutinized the design for the EPR in response to the events in Japan and made changes as appropriate to improve its safety even more.
The fact that I am still here, almost 10 years after coming to the UK to work in the nuclear industry, is evidence that it continues to be an interesting sector. What is more, I'm glad to be able to do my part for the world by contributing to a low-carbon technology. One thing that has changed, though, is my level of interest in French culture. I am proud to be part of a French company and I came to enjoy the opportunities to travel there for work. It probably helps that my wife is French.
Jeroen Veenstra is a fuel design engineer in EDF Energy's Nuclear New Build division in Barnwood, Gloucestershire, UK, email firstname.lastname@example.org
This article appeared in the December 2012 issue of Physics World.