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Interview: Sarah Beacock, CEO, Nuclear Institute

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Nuclear Institute chief executive Sarah Beacock discusses the challenges faced by the UK’s nuclear power generation industry as well as the likely impact of the government’s ambitious ‘Sector Deal’.

“The biggest thing to have happened in the nuclear industry in quite a while,” says Sarah Beacock, “is the UK government’s ‘Nuclear Sector Deal’. It’s given the industry a shot in the arm.”

Part of the UK’s overall Industrial Strategy, the £200m sector deal states its top-line aim as “to secure the UK’s diverse energy mix and drive down costs of nuclear energy, meaning cheaper energy bills for customers”, while also focusing on “innovation to develop the technology and skills needed to maintain the UK’s position as one of the world’s leading nuclear countries”. This, says Beacock, CEO of the Nuclear Institute, the sector’s professional body, has been welcomed by the industry with a mixture of “enthusiasm and a certain amount of cynicism”.

While she is keen to point out that industry targets are “very sensible”, there’s also a feeling that the industry has heard it all before, such as when former Defence Secretary Lord Hutton spoke on the future of the industry a decade ago. “Ten years ago, the industry went through a phase of promise,” says Beacock, “but maybe without the delivery.” Yet when the £18bn Hinkley Point C nuclear power station was given the green light in 2016 “that was probably the most positive time in the industry’s history in recent years. Certainly on the new-build side. What this means is the industry really has something to work towards again.” She says she still meets people who doubt Hinkley will happen, but with construction under way, “it’s going to create real added value to the chain of provision of energy – and it’s going to create a lot of jobs”.

The government is now, according to Beacock, getting behind Wylfa Newydd (Welsh for ‘new Wylfa’) on the island of Anglesey in north Wales. “I’ve been to visit Wylfa, and even though at the moment it looks like a big empty field, there’s a lot going on there.”

After Wylfa Newydd comes on stream, the development of Moorside in Cumbria was to have been next. But the project, close to the decommissioning nuclear reactor site at Windscale, “is still in a real state of flux”, says Beacock. “It’s disappointing that everything seems to have slowed down.”

She adds: “There’s a lot of existing value in the industry both domestically and internationally, and the Sector Deal is seen as a way to develop that. It is also committed to employment growth of 100,000 jobs.” Yet with the rate that the existing workforce is retiring, “we need to recruit people into the industry, particularly technical people, as quickly as possible. This is important, and there are a lot of good apprenticeships in nuclear to be found.”

Beacock notes that within the Sector Deal there is a gender diversity target for 40 per cent of workers in the civil nuclear sector to be women by 2030. She says this is seen as “possibly the biggest challenge in the deal. I talk to academics that tell me getting women into nuclear research and staying in research is an area we really need to tackle.” With 22 per cent of the industry currently staffed by women “that’s probably a lot better than other sectors – our membership is about 25 per cent women ­– so hopefully this is going in the right direction.”

When it comes to the government’s Grand Challenges, “the nuclear industry sees an opportunity to contribute to the ‘clean growth’ area, particularly in the decarbonisation of electricity. There’s a lot of expertise on the waste management side of things that we can also take advantage of. We are also looking at a 30 per cent reduction in costs. That’s probably the key target. It is still the issue of cost that stands in the way of ‘new nuclear’, and we are an industry that is acutely aware this needs to be addressed in order to present itself as more efficient and joined up. That will go hand-in-hand with the reduction of costs in waste management, because if you’re looking at the long-term life cycle that’s important, too.

“The industry has a very good supply chain and the advanced manufacturing work is employing a lot of people looking at cutting-edge developments for the future. The workforce we have is very skilled and it’s been there a long time and there’s a lot of history and experience there. Yet part of the challenge, as these people start to retire, is to transfer this expertise from the outgoing people to the young generation coming in to the industry.

“This is where the Nuclear Institute comes in. We can look at the mentoring process and knowledge transfer. Although the nuclear industry is looking to other industries scaling down to source new people, some skills we need are specialist. There is a lot of training required in areas such as safety and security. We’re also looking at a much higher-skilled industry than it has been in the past or compared with other industries.”

The Nuclear Institute is a licensed engineering body, currently in its tenth year, having been formed on 1 January 2009 following the merger of the British Nuclear Energy Society and the Institution of Nuclear Engineers. Serving professionals in the nuclear sector, Beacock says the organisation “has just been approved by the Society for the Environment to award Chartered Environmentalist. Professional standards and representing people who work at the heart of the industry is very much at the centre of what we do.” She goes on to say the Institute also “does a lot of outreach work in education to make the industry as attractive as it possibly can to future generations of engineers”. Beacock, who joined the NI after 15 years with the Energy Institute, latterly as skills and capability director, says she has now “fully made the transition from an energy person to a nuclear person. We are a small organisation, but we are doing everything we can to grow and develop.”

‘The UK’s nuclear industry is the oldest in the world, still working effectively and producing a lot of world firsts.’

Sarah Beacock CEO, Nuclear Institute

The Nuclear Institute has 2,500 members working in the industry, which Beacock concedes is “tiny compared with our potential market. We are aware of that. We haven’t presented ourselves well enough in recent years to our audience.” On the other hand, corporate connections within the institute remain strong “and we have a good level of engagement with big companies and regulators, which is one way we can feed into the professional development of the industry as a whole. To tackle key issues, we have a number of special interest groups, which help to provide collaboration across different parts of the industry. We have groups concerned with digital, security, project management, radioactive waste and so on. We also have a Women in Nuclear group and a Young Members group that has been very active for some time.” This helps the NI to “promote the industry across the board. I’m always asked why all speakers on panels at conferences are men; I think the industry is aware and it is adapting.”

Reaching a target of 40 per cent of industry personnel being women by 2030 is “critical to the development of the industry”. If the current ageing demographic of the workforce is to be addressed, in order to prevent the predicted skills shortage in the sector, the industry needs to be looking at school pupils and university students as a talent pool.

“One way in which the nuclear industry is quite fortunate is that, because it tends to be sited in remote locations, it is very community focused. What this means is that in places such as Wylfa and Sellafield, there is a lot of investment in community outreach on their own and in conjunction with the NI. We work at events such as the Big Bang Exhibition and the New Scientist Live event, but there are also local versions of these. I’ve met a lot of the apprentices at Horizon Nuclear Power and they are running at about 25 per cent female. So they’re not quite there yet, but I think this opens up a whole world of opportunity that girls in school probably haven’t thought about before.”

At this point, Beacock shows me the cover of the NI magazine featuring a full-page photograph of woman graduate engineers that had come through the National Skills Academy for Nuclear. “That does a lot of work to recognise apprentices, as does the Engineering Construction Industry Training Board. There are some very high-profile examples of how the industry is supported in terms of it encouraging new people, especially women into nuclear.”

Yet the question is, when nuclear energy has, to put it mildly, a public perception problem, how do you get the message across that this is an interesting career proposition? “We try to make our schools-related activities as practical as possible. We have quite a lot of kit. It’s what we call ‘big bang in a box’ that has bits of robots and various hand-held devices. We ask our young members to explain it all to children at our events. It’s about communicating basic things such as the use of remote vehicles for waste-handling, for example.”

Beacock says one of the questions circulating in the market is whether the sector deal is fit for purpose. “Well, we’ve got a mature industry in the UK. It’s the oldest in the world, still working effectively and producing a lot of world firsts. Sellafield is always doing projects that are cutting-edge. Trawsfynydd in north Wales is planned to be the most advanced thermal hydraulic centre in the world.”

Is this all good news or government whitewash? After all, there is a widespread assumption that much of the funding being made available isn’t new, but is simply repackaged from savings. “But the cost savings coming out of the deal are contributions to the overall funding and something that cannot be overlooked,” she responds. “It’s a case of the industry getting the benefits if it can make these efficiencies both in technology and the supply chain. So long as we can achieve those, we have a better chance of achieving high levels of investment and reaping the rewards. One of the things I’m trying to do for next year is to focus our activities around needs of the Nuclear Sector Deal in terms of skills development, supply chain development and cost reduction.”

Beacock said in her opening remarks that the sector deal was met with a mixture of enthusiasm and cynicism. So rather than asking whether it is fit for purpose, perhaps a more pertinent question would be how realistic it is in its optimism. Can we actually meet those targets that look so good in newspaper headlines?

“I think we will be able to. If we look at what the construction industry has achieved so far, and then take that across into the nuclear sector, we are already seeing awareness that there is the potential to make these changes. The Industrial Strategy certainly appears to be working in other sectors too and I think we are learning from those sectors already. But there is probably a degree of optimism in the plan, although it’s not really my place to judge any further than that. But what I do think is that it’s definitely a sensible thing to have targets in place and I also think that the industry is aware that it could be more efficient.”

Beacock states that another of her key objectives “is to tackle public understanding of the nuclear industry. Digging around in our archives I found a report from a decade ago, highlighting things we could do in terms of public engagement. While we do a lot at school, university and early career stages, we probably don’t do enough in terms of public perception.”

The problem for Beacock is “there’s always going to be anti-nuclear sentiment. What we need is to focus less on safety and security, which is traditionally what the public worries about. We need to inform the public that this is all in place and we know what we’re doing. We need to focus on the positive benefits of moving away from fossil fuels to something that can be much more sustainable long-term. From my perspective, having come from a non-nuclear energy background, the nuclear industry hasn’t really communicated that message outside of itself. If you ask the average person in the street how much of their electricity comes from nuclear, they might even be surprised that any of it did.”

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