Twenty years ago it was the bogeyman of the green movement; now some see nuclear energy as our best hope of avoiding global meltdown. Nuclear power is back on the agenda. And so is nuclear education. Tens of millions are being spent on research institutes, centres, and masters and doctoral programmes covering every aspect of the science.
This year the Govern-ment announced its decision to build a new generation of nuclear power stations. At the same time Britain's 14 nuclear power stations are coming to the end of their lifetimes, with half due to be decommissioned by 2010, and only one left by 2023. Just under a quarter of our electricity comes from nuclear power. By 2023 it will be closer to 4 per cent. So there is plenty to keep nuclear specialists, whether engineers, physicists, chemists, environmentalists or policy wonks busy in the next few years. Extremely busy, in fact; there are far fewer specialists than there ought to be, according to those in the industry. The promise of new builds and the challenges of decommissioning come at a time of a serious skills shortage of nuclear experts in Britain. In 1980 there were nearly 9,000 nuclear researchers working in research and development. Now there are only 1,000.
The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is looking to do something about that. They have already invested [pound]10m over four years in doctoral and post-doctoral research at a consortium of universities lead by Manchester and Imperial, and another [pound]2m is in the pipeline for postgraduates concerned with the economics and sociology of the sustainability of nuclear power. The [pound]10m is seen as a starting-off point, filling the gaps that already exist. If Britain is serious about developing new nuclear stations, these one-off projects must transform into ongoing investment. The Nuclear Decommissioning Agency (NDA) is providing scholarships for these courses and others, and is building a [pound]20m nuclear research facility in West Cumbria.
Decommissioning existing plants is itself a huge job. Sellafield will not be fully decommissioned until 2030 and active work on the site is expected for another 125 years. It is a process that involves not only nuclear specialists but also deconstruction experts who need to be trained in the hazards of taking apart a nuclear facility.
This has led to the Agency offering scholarships for Lancaster University's MSc in decommissioning and environmental clean-up. One of a handful of nuclear MScs that have sprung up recently, the course started in 2004 and now has 29 part-time students. Most of these work in the supply chain of the decommissioning busi-wenty ness, for consultancies, logistics companies and construction firms involved in the process.
The two-year course covers project management, safety, d e co m issioning technology and robotics, and environmental awareness. Caroline Hamilton, 26, started the course last year. A mechanical engineering graduate, she says the new understanding of Sellafield's waste legacy has been invaluable. Several of the students on the MSc are non-graduates with industry experience, while others come from different parts of the nuclear industry. …