The SWNH's Research and Strategy Manager Tom Robinson looks back on "a career highlight"
The Nuclear Industry Association’s Nuclear Week in Parliament 2023 was a great event, with stimulating talks, lively networking sessions and strong representation, but was it a success? The industry is waiting with baited breath for the formation of Great British Nuclear (GBN) and the direction that will give the UK’s nuclear renaissance, and until Grant Shapps (previous secretary of state for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS)) delivers on the promise he made in his keynote speech to deliver GBN “soon”, the UK’s nuclear sector will still be waiting.
A career highlight
At the start of the month, I attended the Nuclear Industry Association’s Nuclear Week in Parliament. Over three days, the hosted talks, networking receptions and skills fair were incredibly well represented by industry as well as academia.
Personally, this was a career highlight. Working in the Houses of Lords and Parliament gave me an immense sense of pride and demonstrated the value of the work that the South West Nuclear Hub does, as well as the University and the nuclear sectors in general. There is a great opportunity for nuclear to help address the biggest challenges of the cost of living crisis and climate change by providing reliable green power; this message was central to the week.
Networking with industry leaders
The week was structured around three main events. The reception on the Monday evening gave an opportunity for networking with industry leaders and was attended by MPs keen to learn more about the industry.
The skills and apprenticeships fair on Tuesday was a showcase of the great work done to address the nuclear skills gap across the industry. There were stands from leading employers and a celebratory mood with over 100 apprentices in attendance.
On Wednesday – the pinnacle of the week – was the British Nuclear Showcase Reception. In an extended networking session, there were speeches from Rolls-Royce SMR, Assystem and Tom Greatrex, the Chief Executive of the Nuclear Industry Association. The keynote speech was from Grant Shapps, the then Secretary of State for BEIS, who has since been appointed as the Secretary of State for the new Department of Energy Security and Net Zero, seemingly named after the benefits of nuclear power!
In addition to the three main events, there were a number of satellite talks. I attended interesting discussions on the skills needs of the industry, the opportunities for learning between fusion and fission, and the potential for enhanced British and French collaboration.
Advocating for higher education
The main purpose of the South West Nuclear Hub’s attendance was to demonstrate the importance of higher education in meeting the skills gap. Around 16% of the civil nuclear workforce has a Level 7 qualification or above (Level 7 is equivalent to a Master’s degree), yet only 2% of training in civil nuclear is at this level. Further emphasis on higher education training is needed to maintain the current expertise within the nuclear industry, let alone realise the increase in skills required for the planned sector growth.
Throughout the event, there was a strong message to prioritize the funding of nuclear Centres for Doctoral Training (CDTs). CDTs typically train around 70 PhD students to become the subject matter experts of the future. EPSRC is currently running the call for the next wave of CDTs from 2024-2032, which will be five years of student cohorts. The funding for this call is lower than previous calls, so fewer CDTs will be funded. There are currently two nuclear focused CDTs, the GREEN CDT led by Manchester with Lancaster, Leeds, Liverpool and Sheffield, and the Nuclear Energy Futures CDT led by Imperial College London with Bangor, Bristol, Cambridge and the OU. Both CDTs need to be renewed and funded to help address the nuclear skills gap.
Reflecting on the political messages
The main purpose of the week was to engage Parliamentarians and influence future policy; in this respect the event had some success. The events were hosted by “pro-nuclear” MPs, or at least MPs with nuclear in their constituencies, from Workington, Carlisle, Warrington North, Ynys Môn (which includes Wylfa), and Wantage and Didcot (Harwell). Further MPs attended through the week for individual discussions and fact finding, but in many regards we were speaking to the converted.
In his keynote speech, Grant Shapps proudly proclaimed this Government supports nuclear and “we don’t need convincing”, referencing the £700m investment in Sizewell C. This positive messaging was somewhat tempered by his next statement that industry shouldn’t wait for Government.
The discussions through the event were focused on GBN and the need for a Government backed programme for nuclear new build (linked to a broader energy strategy). Many hoped GBN would even be announced at Nuclear Week in Parliament. The need for GBN could not be clearer, with uncertainty in the supply chain, a lack of siting plans for nuclear new build, and reactor vendors starting to explore opportunities outside the UK. The week itself started with an open letter to the Prime Minister from Prospect, Westinghouse, Rolls-Royce SMR, the Northern Powerhouse Partnership and MPs “call[ing] on the Prime Minister to launch a fully funded Great British Nuclear programme as a matter of priority”.
In this context, Grant Shapps’ message did not resonate with the crowd and the hope is that the Government will come good on their promise and launch GBN in the Spring budget.
Hope for the nuclear renaissance
While there was a rightfully celebratory mood with the recent successes, the sector is waiting until the announcement of Great British Nuclear and the certainty that will bring to the supply chain, investors and reactor vendors. The messaging from Government is positive, and the strong attendance over the three days demonstrated the excitement and strength of UK plc, so there is the will and capability to realise the nuclear renaissance. But until the Government sets out a clear pathway for the sector, we will still be waiting.
My take-home message from the week came from Virginia Crosbie, MP for Ynys Môn, who said nuclear now needs “pace, certainty and funding”. I couldn’t agree more.
 Figure 17 shows level of nuclear workforce and Figure 19 shows training by level. Nuclear Skills and Strategy Group, Nuclear Workforce Assessment 2021 Microsoft Word - NWA 2021 Draft v3_20220307.docx (nssguk.com)