Small Modular Reactors: Key to Solving the Skills Deficit

By Robert Plana
Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) will play a maj...

Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) will play a major part in the ‘future of nuclear’ and are an intriguing development for the UK’s decarbonised future. Creating £60 per megawatt hour once mature[2] SMR technology will play a key role in reinvigorating the UK energy industry. That being said, although there are strong targets and interest in the recent Government investment placed in new nuclear technologies, in order to drive this nuclear evolution forward, much more than just financial investment is required.

Currently, the UK is in a challenging situation. Yes, the SMR developments are an extremely positive step towards the eradication of fossil fuel energy generation, however the UK does not have the sufficient skills capacity to execute these current and large scale new build commitments.  The UK is already in a clear nuclear skills deficit, and an SMR programme will exacerbate this capacity shortfall.  How will the UK be able to sustain the skills demand on top of this?

The UK is already in desperate need for talent to complete current nuclear projects. Thousands of engineers and construction workers[3] are currently needed to complete Hinkley Point C power station in Somerset as well as other planned nuclear plants over the next 20+ years. If the UK were to deploy 7GWe of SMRs, then over 40,000 skilled jobs would be created, but the UK requires a skills injection and strategy in order to carry this forward. 

Taking stock, currently the nuclear industry contributes £12.4billion to the UK economy and provides longterm employment to 87,000 people across defence and civil[4], however with 100,000 additional UK jobs set to be created by 2021[5], there remains a capacity concern. Even when considering digitisation, given the timeline, volumes and locations for these SMR new builds, the forecast of engineers required to complete this is vast, especially over the next 30-40 years. This doesn’t take into account the thousands required to decommission the existing fleet of nuclear reactors also. Its therefore integral we maintain a balance and ideally have multi-skilled experts rather than just niche nuclear specialists.

We hope the premise of a new and exciting SMR programme will help attract the talent needed to support this, from Universities, other sectors and geographies. That being said, companies also need to step up and invest in the necessary skills required and the Nuclear Skills Strategy Group is doing an excellent job in kick-starting this.  But more needs to be done. At Assystem, we hold over 50+ years nuclear experience and as one of the top three independent nuclear engineering companies worldwide, hold more of a global perspective.  There is a clear need to develop a portfolio of experts across all specialisms, but importantly, to do so, tapping into global expertise to support this evolution.  Skills sharing across the globe will provide a vital solution for the UK. 

There is already a bi-lateral collaboration between the UK and France in large scale nuclear development, however there is no fixed agreement for similar collaboration on SMRs. This is something we need to encourage.

Joining two advanced industrial countries together where new nuclear builds are taking place is important. We have supported players in the French and in the UK nuclear energy market throughout the commissioning of the national nuclear fleets and development of R&D projects such as ITER. Collectively both the UK and France have both the capability and access to funding in addition to the motivation of significant benefits in terms of economic development, jobs and exports to third markets. So, let’s capitalise and collectively lean on our Anglo/French relationship. Most of the highly skilled jobs on the Hinkley Point project seem to have stayed in France, while the UK supply chain’s main scope remains building work related.  We want to encourage a stronger development of cross border skills sharing as well as shared manufacturing facilities to better develop and deploy SMRs as a result.

In addition to global talent sourcing, we believe it’s important to develop an innovative ecosystem to guarantee the future of nuclear on a broader scale: skills and innovations focused.  Our newly developed ‘Imagine’ programme will act as a catalyst for all types of innovations. Partnering with diverse players including universities, schools, incubators, research clusters, start-ups, clients, and suppliers, it will also facilitate and support the industry’s talent sourcing battle; ensuring predicted sector growth. In addition, there is a need to achieve significant cost reductions, ideally in the order of 30% across new nuclear builds. This is something we need to work towards and achieve through digitisation, advanced manufacturing, modularisation and by harnessing advanced construction methodologies. All of which can be achieved by enticing sector talent.

Nuclear power remains crucial to the evolution of the UK energy industry and the Government’s pledge to develop these small-scale reactors is a huge relief for its future.  So, let’s harness this opportunity. Let’s join together as industry players, entice and secure the talent required, decrease the skills gap, meet the forecast engineer requirement in order to safeguard the UK’s decarbonised future and provide the UK with a clear competitive edge.

Robert Plana is the Chief Technical Officer at Assystem Energy & Infrastructure


[1] Nuclear Skills Strategy Group's (NSSG) 2017 Nuclear Workforce Assessment, July 2017

[2] Daily Telegraph, October 2017

[3] FT, August 2017

[4] Oxford Economics

[5] Annual Assessment, Nuclear Skills Strategy Group, 2017


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