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Working in physics: A fresh look at nuclear

A new industry-wide graduate scheme aims to get the next generation of nuclear scientists thinking about community and environmental issues from the outset. Susie Hay and Michael Kelk describe the “nucleargraduates” programme.

Not going to waste

As everyone must surely now acknowledge, the economy is heading for recession in many countries, and several industries are planning to cut back on their workforces. Physics and engineering graduates may have an advantage in this economic climate, however, because one major sector is definitely still hiring talented people from these disciplines: the nuclear industry.

Nuclear power is back on the political agenda for a number of reasons. These include the need to secure and sustain future power supplies, reduce carbon emissions and address the environmental problems associated with decommissioning aging power plants. But like other sectors, the nuclear industry has been affected by a shortage of science and technology graduates in recent years. Indeed, the average age of an employee in the industry in the UK is 50. Because the task of decommissioning some reactor sites — including the UK’s first, Sellafield in Cumbria — may take up to 150 years, it is crucial for organizations like the UK Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) to attract a new generation of workers with diverse skills.

One aspect of the NDA’s recruitment campaign is an industry-wide graduate scheme, called “nucleargraduates”. Launched last year, it has so far recruited 23 graduates. About a quarter of these have physics degrees, and applications from physicists have trebled since the first intake started.

Programme structure
The two-year-long nucleargraduates programme sends participants on four professional secondments in different organizations and diverse locations. Participants in the scheme can expect to do three of their six-month placements in UK locations, which range from the Plymouth-based construction company Atkins and the NDA’s headquarters in West Cumbria to the Dounreay Research Site on the northern tip of Scotland. They will then go on a four-month placement overseas, typically in France, North America or Japan.

More than 20 leading companies, regulators and government bodies are sponsoring the programme, making it the most comprehensive such scheme the industry has ever seen. Participants include global manufacturers like Rolls Royce and BAE Systems, engineering consultancy firms like Jacobs and Amec, government bodies such as the Environment Agency, and nuclear-site operators like Magnox North and Sellafield Limited. Participants in the scheme have, for example, worked at the high-level-waste plant at Sellafield and on the waste-transportation strategy at the UK Atomic Energy Agency site in Harwell, Oxfordshire.

Building community links
One important aspect of the scheme is a compulsory corporate social responsibility (CSR) programme called Footprints, which is designed to enable the participants to make small but lasting impacts in the areas and communities where the nuclear industry operates. As part of the programme, graduates spend 10% of their time working in local not-for-profit enterprises, schools and small businesses. By devoting such a significant amount of time to the endeavour, the NDA aims to make Footprints a real driver for change rather than a series of unconnected charitable gestures.

The projects need not involve nuclear issues directly. Some participants have, for example, gone into primary schools to excite young people about science, technology, engineering and maths. Others, meanwhile, have been working with the Connexions Cumbria organization and young people not in employment, education or training to help them shape local services to meet their needs and increase their aspirations.

One of the participants is Steve Mahay, a physics graduate from Birmingham University in the UK. His main role in his first placement at the Harwell site was to work on waste transportation. As part of his Footprints project, Mahay designed webpages for Didcot First, a local group that promotes the Oxfordshire town as a centre for science and technology. He also worked with Susan Elder, a chemistry graduate from Strathclyde University in the UK, to organize an event to promote science among young people. Mahay and Elder estimate that over 200 children came to see the demonstrations on magnets and how to save energy.

“I was pleasantly surprised by how interested I became in the corporate-social-responsibility segment of my work,” says Elder. “The CSR programme really helped me to consider the world outside the NDA, and allowed me to learn new skills while doing something useful for the local community.”

Looking to the future
The reason for including the Footprints work in the programme is that although the nuclear industry is currently hiring new people to work on decommissioning older reactors, the closure of these “legacy” facilities can also bring severe job losses to local communities and businesses that depend on the nuclear industry. For example, when the Dounreay reactor finally closes in 2025, nearby communities like Thurso will lose about 2000 jobs. To minimize the impact on the area, the nuclear industry is working in partnership with the Highlands and Islands Development Agency, Caithness Council, local communities and potential entrepreneurs within and outside the nuclear industry to support and create new businesses — for example in wind and tidal energy — to help sustain the local economy.

With such strategic goals in mind, the Footprints programme provides a way for the next generation of managers in the nuclear industry to look beyond the business to the wider socioeconomic context in which it operates. The end result of the Footprints scheme, the NDA hopes, will be that skills the participants gain within the industry including project management, communication and creative problem solving — are shared with the community.

Equally, strong links with local communities allow industry leaders to keep in touch with opinions and experiences from outside the nuclear business. This knowledge can then help inform decision-making about the future of the industry. In the past, inward-looking and “them and us” cultures led to gaps in understanding, and a lack of effective partnerships between the industry and the communities in which it operates. For example, the first generation of nuclear sites like Sellafield were created to make weapons, not generate power, and the associated Cold War paranoia meant that such sites were not built to be “future proof”. It is only now, after the sites have been shut down and the NDA began dealing with them in 2004 that we are realizing the extent of the challenge. The industry now recognizes the importance of working together to build sustainable communities, and Footprints is an important part of that goal.

The 23 members of the 2008 nucleargraduates scheme all have good academic qualifications; the programme requires at least a 2.2 BSc degree and some participants have higher degrees. Although non-UK citizens are eligible, such applicants must have the right to work in the UK and may need to go through more extensive background checks. Beyond this, the programme’s organizers are also looking for graduates with the curiosity, creativity and determination to meet the considerable challenges facing the nuclear industry now and in the future.

Because of the “umbrella” nature of the scheme, participants are not guaranteed a job at the end of their placements. However, they will have gained enough experience within the industry to know what interests them most, and can then apply for a specific role at companies or organizations that appeal to them. As NDA graduate manager Carl Dawson emphasizes, it is not a “sausage machine” or one-size-fits all programme, and graduates are expected to explore many possibilities in the industry, particularly where skill shortages exist.

About the author
Susie Hay is a consultant at shortwork, which designs projects linking people and communities, including the Footprints programme for the National Decommissioning Agency (NDA). Michael Kelk is a communications officer with the NDA.

This article originally appeared in the January 2009 issue of Physics World

Image credit: National Decommissioning Agency

last edited: September 11, 2018

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