The UK nuclear industry now directly employs over 50,000 people in the UK and supplies about 18% of its electricity from 18 reactors (at ten plants). These reactors save the equivalent of the carbon emissions from most the UK’s cars on the road. But most of the existing nuclear reactors are nearing the end of their lives and without new nuclear power station build, by 2025 only Sizewell B in Suffolk will remain generating electricity.
At its peak during the 1990s about 28% of all the UK’s electricity was generated in nuclear reactor power stations.
Energy security: We have all been living through the digital information revolution in the past thirty years. And now at the start of the 21st century we are in the early stages of an energy revolution. The UK needs an immense and dependable flow of electrical energy every moment of the day but at the same time we want to move away from our heavy dependence on burning fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) to get the heat to generate this electrical energy.
First and foremost we want to drastically cut down the amount of CO2 (“Carbon”) greenhouse gas pollution we are producing from burning fossil fuel. We also need to renew an ageing energy infrastructure. Many other developed and developing countries are facing their own needs for low-Carbon and sustainable energy.
The results will be a complex mix of energy technologies- some renewable, some not. Nuclear power generation is pretty much completely zero carbon emissions, a truly “green” form of energy. Though it is not strictly “renewable” there is, practically speaking, an unlimited amount of the basic fuel (uranium) in the world, and a very small amount of uranium-based fuel can supply a great deal of energy due to the mass-energy equivalence (the famous E= mc2 equation).
Fuel processing: Another very important part of the UK nuclear industry is the “nuclear fuel cycle” process that provides the fresh fuel and the spent fuel services – reprocessing or storage – for nuclear power stations. Over 10,000 people in the UK are employed in the production, reprocessing and storage of nuclear fuel and in waste handling in the UK, and we are a leading player in the processing of spent nuclear fuel from international markets.
Decommissioning: Once a nuclear power station, or a fuel reprocessing plant, reaches the end of its working life it must be safely shut down and decommissioned and the land cleared of all radioactive and other hazardous materials. Many older UK plants are reaching this stage, and this is leading to the need for yet more nuclear expertise within the country. The UK is already the leading country in the world in decommissioning know-how and about twenty sites are being cleaned up and decommissioned.
Defence nuclear capability and energy: The UK is a nuclear military power, and the Royal Navy operates a fleet of nuclear–powered submarines and the UK nuclear war deterrent programme. The latest Astute class of nuclear-powered submarines was built by BAE Systems. Four Vanguard Class submarines carry the nuclear deterrent weapons. Nuclear defence activities employ about 15,000 people. Find out more on the Royal Navy Submarine Service website.
The civil and military nuclear industry needs a large number of highly skilled technicians, engineers and scientists. And this need is growing with the prospect of new nuclear build and the large decommissioning projects now starting. Many supply chain companies feed into the industry and they also require skilled technical staff. By its nature, the industry runs with very long time scales, offering secure careers to those with the necessary technical and specialist skills. British nuclear industry skills are also highly valued abroad: UK companies are a major exporter of nuclear technology and skills, providing numerous international opportunities for their employees.
New build: The UK has outlined plans to build new nuclear power stations as part of its sustainable energy, low- Carbon balanced energy mix for the future. In particular, the new nuclear power stations will provide a significant part of the “baseload” of the national grid, providing very reliable constant power output through the day, with true renewables such as solar and wind power providing a substantial part of the rest.
Cogent’s research shows that a programme of nuclear renaissance will require annual recruitment of around 1000 people, many at Apprentice and Graduate level. The UK nuclear industry has a guaranteed and exciting future. There is also much scientific research going on in the alternative approach of nuclear fusion rather than fission (fusion is the energy source of the sun and all other stars). This has the long-term promise of almost unlimited, safe, zero-Carbon energy for Britain and the world and the research in the UK (“JET” and “MAST”), Europe (ITER, HiPER, and others) and elsewhere is requiring the brightest scientific and engineering talent.
For further information and to find out about nuclear careers initiatives visit the National Skills Academy for Nuclear website.