Gordon Birtwistle MP writes… A revived nuclear industry could unlock the UK’s engineering potential for generations to come

In March 2013, the Government published its Nuclear Industrial Strategy with the ambition to make the UK once again world leading in nuclear new build and decommissioning expertise. It is forecast that globally £930 billion is set to be invested in new reactors and a further £250 billion to pay for decommissioning.

But to take advantage of these growing opportunities, the UK needs to recruit and train far more people into engineering than currently. Figures from EngineeringUK show that the sector needs to recruit 2.2 million candidates over the next five to ten years in the UK. Despite the many opportunities in an engineering career, only half of 11-to-14-year olds say they would consider it a viable option. This figure dropped to barely a third among girls and, unfortunately, less than a quarter of parents said they thought engineering was a suitable profession for their daughters.

So how do we ensure the UK builds a workforce that can capitalise on this multi-billion pound opportunity in the global nuclear market?

One example of success lies in the North West, where a new wave of local young recruits are being trained to create an economic powerhouse for the region with expertise unrivalled anywhere in the world.

The Sellafield site, based in West Cumbria, is the largest nuclear site in Europe and one of the most complex in the world. Managed by Nuclear Management Partners (NMP), the site is run on a day to day basis by Sellafield Ltd, who are responsible for safely delivering nuclear decommissioning, waste management and spent nuclear fuel management in support of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority’s mission of safe accelerated clean-up of the nuclear legacy.

Sellafield has the highest concentration of nuclear skills in one place, with over 15,000 highly skilled staff employed on site, with over 10,000 employed directly by Sellafield Ltd and the rest working for contractors in the supply chain. Last year under the management of NMP, Sellafield Ltd recruited a record number of apprentices, and will exceed that this year. In addition to this, a quarter of the apprentices are female compared with the national average for the sector of just 6 per cent.

Its apprenticeship programme has made a massive contribution to Cumbria and the North West in producing skilled people – more than 5,000 since the programme began.

Sellafield Ltd have also targeted the most deprived parts of the community, running a pilot work scheme for the unemployed, leading to a large number finding work. This is part of a wider long-term investment in the region focused on learning and skills facilities including construction and technology colleges.

To the people of West Cumbria, the Sellafieldoffering to the global nuclear market is the beating heart of its regional economy, creating tens of thousands of high value jobs, supporting many more and offering a vast range of training and career opportunities for young people.

As the founder of the Liberal Democrat Campaign for Manufacturing I believe manufacturing is vital for Britain’s long term economic success. My aim is that government decisions and initiatives reflect this priority. Projects like the 100-year long decommissioning of Sellafield will require highly skilled engineers for generations to come. Supporting the revival of our country’s expertise in nuclear engineering is a key part of this.

* Gordon Birtwistle is Member of Parliament for Burnley, Chair of Lib Dem Parliamentary Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills, co-founder of the Lib Dem Campaign for Manufacturing and and Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Apprenticeships.

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  • > with the ambition to make the UK once again world leading in nuclear new build and decommissioning expertise.

    Whilst this many be a worthy objective, the problem I have is the way the government is going about the UK new nuclear programme and the whole nuclear lifecycle. If we are really going to be serious about developing new engineering capabilities then lets treat the building of 12 or so new power stations as a single UK investment project rather than simply a series of one off commercial deals with foreign companies.

    So when will the government come forward with their full plans for the £120+ billion investment in new nuclear and start to quantify the opportunity? I expect the economic case is going to be a lot sounder than the one cobbled together for HS2…

  • Conor McGovern 10th Oct '14 - 6:58pm

    Money. money, money. According to Mr Birtswistle, nuclear investment is justified as long as it produces more capital for the broken economy.

  • Perhaps Burnley would make a good centre for the next generation of these things, then.
    I’ll stick to green sustainables. With a fraction of the funding and subsidies nuclear swallows up just as many jobs and innovations could follow in safe clean sustainable technology!

  • Tsar Nicolas 11th Oct '14 - 7:06am

    You would never think that there has for nearly four years been an ongoing nuclear disaster at Fukushima! I guess because it’s not on the telly it can’t be real.

  • Tony Dawson 11th Oct '14 - 8:33am

    The continued pretence that the nuclear industry has anything useful to contribute to a ‘green’ economy (other than sucking trillions of pounds out the economy and increasing fuel consumption in the early capital investment phase) is based upon the success of massive lobbying capacity of this industry which spends more on propaganda every year than the Lib Dems spend on political messaging. I look forward to the Lib Dems endorsing UKIP’s migration policies shortly on the same basis.

    Let’s all throw away another longstanding Lib Dem policy. After all, removing some of the clutter from the Titanic dance floor will allow the orchestra more flexibility of expression and is bound to stop the ship sinking.

  • peter tyzack 11th Oct '14 - 10:03am

    we could do so much more if our money were to be invested in renewables. The drive to nuclear is all about city investors.
    On a related topic, scrap Trident and we have all the money we could possibly need for schools and hospitals.
    What good is the expertise in nuclear engineering and science if it isn’t transferable,
    when we eventually wake up to the fact that the nuclear road is truly the road to hell?

  • Exactly what Peter Tyzack said!!!

    Peter. You and I do not always agree — but you are spot on with this one.

    The opportunities to develop engineering skills and experience in the various industries connected with renewables offers far more to future generations than a nuclear skills ghetto in Sellafield.

    And why is the MP for Burnley spouting so much about Cumbria?
    The last time I looked we had a perfectly good Liberal Democrat MP with a fantastic record in Cumbria.
    He is also much more likely to be an MP on 8th May than Mr Birtwhistle.

  • So many issues in one post!

    On engineering training I absolutely agree. The UK’s record on vocational training (and not just for engineering) is catastrophic especially at the trade levels yet until recently it’s barely been on the Westminster radar which is just one of the many reasons so many of us a really angry in ways that the political class just doesn’t seem to get. Even now the best idea seems to be to boast about how many ‘apprenticeships’ have been funded (and never mind the width). They profess a belief that markets are the answer to everything yet, when push comes to shove, plump straight for an administrative solution straight out of the old – and failed – Soviet playbook. Brilliant! We need to devise a system where supply adjusts to meet demand in a clear and transparent way.

    On nuclear, we should ask how it is that this government is slashing the Feed in Tariff payments to all technologies. That’s right and proper when costs fall with better technology and economies of scale but this goes beyond that. As far as I know this is because there is only a limited pot of money but what does this say about the commitment to change anything.

  • Stephen Hesketh 11th Oct '14 - 2:21pm

    Tony Dawson 11th Oct ’14 – 8:33am
    peter tyzack 11th Oct ’14 – 10:03am
    JohnTilley 11th Oct ’14 – 10:17am

    Exactly what you all said!

  • GF 11th Oct ’14 – 12:42pm
    On nuclear, we should ask how it is that this government is slashing the Feed in Tariff payments to all technologies. ………. ….,,,,,,,,,,,,,As far as I know this is because there is only a limited pot of money …….

    GF —-good question!
    One answer may involve the fingerprints of The Treasury and George Osborne. But both Chris Huhne and Ed Davey have a duty to tell the truth on this and explain how we have got to where we are. Unfortunately, neither of them has thus far been a shining example of transparency and openness on the policy of new nuclear power. Policy by stealth, back door deals with European governments and lobbyists, changing party policy at the 2013 conference by sleight of hand rather than by open debate. All these accusations and more have been made in the mainstream press.
    Not exactly.the new style of government that Liberal Democrats were taking about during the 2010 General Election.

  • Alan
    You should put your question in an e-mail and send it tomEdward Davey MP.

    If you look back through a number of threads on the subject of nuclear power in LDV over the last twelve months you will find planty of Liberal Democrats who continuer oppose the madness of new nuclear power stations.

    It is a broken promise, there is not a shadow of doubt about that. But if you are unhappy about it you should take it up with the man who broke his promise, Edward Davey. But as a Labour supporter you must know that the Labour Party is fully supportive of new nuclear.. Even UKIP supports it..
    It is only The Green Party, the SNP and a large number of individual Liberal Democrats who are clearly against.

  • Green Voter 11th Oct '14 - 8:11pm

    “supply adjusts to meet demand”

    If employers really want more staff, why can they not offer better salaries? If you are not prepared to pay the price, how much do you really need something?

  • Stephen Hesketh 11th Oct '14 - 9:27pm

    @Green Voter 11th Oct ’14 – 8:11pm
    “supply adjusts to meet demand”

    GV:If employers really want more staff, why can they not offer better salaries? If you are not prepared to pay the price, how much do you really need something?

    Its an interesting concept Green Voter but one which apparently only applies to investment bankers, footballers, fat cat bosses but not to engineers, scientists, teachers, nurses, bin men etc. Funny that isn’t it 🙁

  • Steve Coltman 11th Oct '14 - 10:16pm

    I do not see New Nuclear as an alternative to renewables nor vice versa. Only 20% of the energy we use is used in the form of electricity. If we are to decarbonise the other 80% (30% or so gas, 50% of so liquid fuels) then much of this needs to be converted to electricity. And we barely have enough generating capacity as it is without significantly increasing it. We need nuclear and renewables, and we need a proper debate about the best way to proceed with nuclear. The first comment, from Roland, is spot on. We should have a proper program, not a load of one-off PFI-type projects which will make nuclear more expensive than it needs to be.

  • Stephen Hesketh 11th Oct '14 - 10:48pm

    One thing that puzzles me slightly about Gordon Birtwistle’s post is that how we make the leap from the very desirable objective of boosting engineering and engineering employment to the support of the crazily capital-intensive and essentially old technology nuclear power.

    Just how many counties are going to follow the UK’s lead of using this technology with all its known and well documented issues when renewables offer more flexible and lower cost and lower risk alternatives and the very engineers and scientists Gordon seeks to encourage are making regular advances in designs and efficiency.

    If one adds to this the much greater exportability and labour-intensity of renewables and Gordon’s linking of engineering jobs and nuclear looks increasingly questionable.

  • Tsar Nicolas 11th Oct '14 - 11:26pm

    Why has nobody else mentioned Fukushima?

    Three reactor meltdowns, spent rods in the open three storeys up, massive quantities of contamination pouring into the pacific where the currents carry it east to the west coast of north America; salmon dying out in Alaska, massive die-off of sea life in Oregon, northern California and British Columbia . . .

    Try not watching the mainstream news and media.

    Go to enenews.com

  • Stephen Hesketh 12th Oct '14 - 6:40am

    @Tsar Nicolas 11th Oct ’14 – 11:26pm
    Why has nobody else mentioned Fukushima?

    Quite possibly because in this analysis it provides long-term decommissioning employment for engineers!

  • Assuming the money for the decarbonising demand can be made available (and diversion from the new nuclear programme is one way of doing it) then various kinds of renewables CAN be made available. Frankly, I don’t buy the stuff and nonsense about intermittent supply. As the variety of sources that we get renewable energy increases, so does the ease of covering one source with another as, say, the wind drops in one area, or night follows day for solar power. Battery technology improves all the time. Surely supporters of Big Nuclear are not telling us that their methods are in the long run cheaper that proper investment in both renewables and insulation? Some years ago the argument was deployed regularly by BN’s supporters that renewables would take much longer to develop, and wouldn’t fill the gap in time! I think recent renewable developments, especially solar, show that it is renewables, given the level of spending that has gone / is going into nuclear, that have a greater chance of filling the gap more quickly?

  • Tsar Nicolas 11th Oct ’14 – 11:26pm
    Why has nobody else mentioned Fukushima?

    If you look back at earlier threads in LDV over the last twelve months you will see Fukushima mentioned many times.

    But you are right to mention it again. It is the great unspoken word for all In the Westminster Bubble, an inconvenient truth.

    Earlier this week I mentioned the ship drifting off the coast of Scotland carrying nuclear waste from Dounray to Belgium as an example of one of those nuclear accidents that never happens in the UK; there had been a fire on the ship and a nearby oil-rig had to be evacuated.

    There is a website that lists the thousands of UK nuclear accidents that have taken place over the years but the official line from Westminster is that such things do to happen here. Which is of course what the authorities said in Japan before Fukushima, in Kiev before Chernobyl, and in the USA before Three Mile Island.

  • Stephen Hesketh 12th Oct '14 - 8:38am

    “Despite the many opportunities in an engineering career, only half of 11-to-14-year olds say they would consider it a viable option. This figure dropped to barely a third among girls and, unfortunately, less than a quarter of parents said they thought engineering was a suitable profession for their daughters.”

    This is not just a problem for engineering but the the whole of manufacturing. The status of manufacturing industry is significantly lower in Britain than elsewhere in Europe. This has a vicious circle of decline, lower wages, an over concentration and remuneration for financial services, lower investment, fewer jobs. People who ‘got on in life’, in part did not work in industry as did their fathers before them!

    It is an issue that permeates British society encompassing class, status, education, media, parliament etc. It also drives the concentration of power and wealth in London and south east England.

    As Green voter intimates, a good place to start would be to pay engineers (to which I would add everyone else) more equitably. While we continue to believe that those in say finance or people with good verbal skills are worth more than carers, ‘doer’s’ , practical, administrative and creative people the wider problem will persist, and what is worse, will continue to grow.

  • Tim13 12th Oct ’14 – 8:04am
    ……Some years ago the argument was deployed regularly by BN’s supporters that renewables would take much longer to develop, and wouldn’t fill the gap in time! ….

    Yes , indeed. Edward Davey was making a similar blinkered argument earlier this week on one of the very rare occasions that ha has mentioned nuclear since his sleight of hand to change party policy in October 2013. In a matter of days he moved from “NO Subsidies” to “thirty five years worth of subsidies” without blinking.

    If the same amount of subsidy was devoted to solar we could have every single roof in the UK generating electricity far more quickly and with far more jobs spread across the entire country than Gordon Birtwistle’s few thousand in Sellafield.

    The pace of development and rapid improvement and reduction in cost of solar over the last twenty years has been remarkable but Ed Davey’s department of energy seems to be more comfortable with the technology of the 1980s. George Monbiot, whom Ed Davey likes to quote as being a convert to nuclear, pointed out recently that the dinosaur being built at Hinkley C is already outdated and it will not even start producing electricity before Ed Davey starts collecting his old age pension.

    The great forgotten electricity potential in this country is small scale local hydro. I live near the Thames, close to my house at Teddington Lock on an average day water passes through at a rate of 70,000 litres per second. How much of that is used to produce electricity? None. And yet we have had the technology available for a hundred years.

    The UK is covered with rivers which could with minimal investment and some of those engineering skills that Gordon Bortwistle says he is so keen on be producing electricity for local communities.

    And then there is tidal —– etc. etc. etc……

    If you are reading this Gordn Birtwistle, perhaps you could spare a thought for all the thousands of jobs in engineering that you are denying future generations because of your short sighted concentration of investment in nuclear.

  • Stephen Hesketh 12th Oct '14 - 10:01am

    JohnTilley 12th Oct ’14 – 9:00am

    So much to agree with here John.

    Just as the electorate as a whole are fed up with being treated as fools by the Westminster parties, I suspect party activists are similarly fed up with being treated as the foot soldiers, worthy only of involvement at general election time. I know this one is!

    These people are in danger of driving Britain’s (small l) liberal society and our democracy on to the UKIP rocks.

  • John Tilley (11th Oct @ 12:42 pm) – Absolutely agree. The lack of transparency and openness and sleight of hand policy changes – not just in nuclear but generally – characterise the Lib Dem side of the Coalition and are very far from what we were promised and I’m sure it’s a big part of the reason support has collapsed. People tend to mention the broken pledge on tuition fees but actually have floating around in the back of their mind that that was just the tip of a rather large iceberg of overpromising even if they can’t quote chapter and verse on the rest.

  • Green Voter – “If employers really want more staff, why can they not offer better salaries?”

    A good point and an important one. One of the core neoliberal fallacies is the belief – not usually spelt out in so many words but strongly implied nevertheless – that price is (mostly) the only thing that matters in a market; more price equals more supply and less demand and so on so that markets balance. It’s rubbish. Price is just one of many factors and very often one of the least important ones. It a classic piece of misdirection but sadly one that’s taken in a great many Lib Dems and others. In education institutional factors are crucial.

    So what is an engineering company to do if the educational system isn’t producing enough engineers, or mainly poorly trained ones or is seeing many of the most talented ones lured away work in the casino known as the City? All these are beyond it’s power to influence, especially when Westminster doesn’t understand manufacturing and doesn’t care either. The answer must come from institution building within the broad educational sector to make sure it does produce the necessary engineers. But the sad truth is that this is on no political party’s radar despite the new-found enthusiasm for ‘apprenticeships’.

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