Britain's nuclear future: Doomed by its own contractors and skill shortages
Britain’s £70 billion nuclear programme is in serious trouble. Contractors have either started or are threatening to pull out of four planned nuclear power stations.
There is also huge recruitment crisis to get enough trained staff to build them in the first place.
The country could literally be on the blink as 14 out of the 15 existing nuclear power stations are due to close by 2030 – drastically reducing the current 21 per cent share of electricity generated by nuclear power.
They were due to be replaced by eight new nuclear power stations – but only one is currently under construction by the French nationalised energy firm EDF – at Hinckley Point in Somerset. And that may well miss its 2025 opening deadline.
In the last two months while Brexit dominated the news three unrelated announcements have drastically changed the situation for the worse.
Plans for a new nuclear plant at Sellafield in Cumbria – called Moorside – have been scrapped by Toshiba which has decided to pull out of the UK development. The company failed to find a buyer for the project.
And meetings are being held by Hitachi to consider abandoning its plans to build a £16 billion nuclear power station at Wylfa in Anglesey – only six months after the UK agreed to pump £5 billion of taxpayer’s money into the project to keep it going. Hitachi’s share price went up on the announcement of a possible pull out.
The decision also puts at risk two other projects by Hitachi in Oldbury, Gloucestershire leaving Britain mainly relying on the Chinese to build a new power station in Bradwell, Essex and help develop a new power station at Sizewell.
Huge recruitment crisis
Meanwhile a damning report has been produced by the Nuclear Skills Strategy Group, an employer led organisation, which includes representatives of government, the unions and a representative from China. It shows that the UK has an enormous skill shortage of available engineers and could face an “age related cliff-edge loss of current skills and experience” as well qualified staff reach retirement. Many of the current experienced staff are in their 50s and 60s.
Although written up in an upbeat way the strategy also signed off by three government ministers in the business, defence and education departments makes grim reading. The link to the report is here.
It says to recruit the 100,000 skilled people to build the new power stations it will be required to double existing recruitment as it has a 50 per cent shortfall.
Among shortfalls are electrical and civil engineers, safety experts, emergency planners, control and instrumentation experts,project planners and regulators. In basic construction there is a shortage of scaffolders and concrete experts.
The report says: “Even where there is a large national pool from which new staff and trainees can be drawn, recruitment, attraction, and retention factor heavily in determining available supply. Remote locations, competing industries, and the lack of practical training opportunities can all affect workforce availability.”
The problem is also being made worse by Britain leaving the EU which could hit skilled people from other EU countries taking up work and also affect nuclear research.
The report reveals that the shortage also extends to the military. The UK is committed to replacing Trident. Yet will it have the people to do it.
There is growing collaboration between the military and civil nuclear industry with new initiatives set up in Cumbria and at Hinckley Point and they are even desperate enough to want to shorten security checks to attract new staff.
Will nuclear survive?
Britain's civil and military nuclear expansion and modernisation has been under attack by Greenpeace and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament for decades. It would be the ultimate irony if the programme closed down because the contractors walked and Whitehall ran out of the money it needed to subsidise them. There is a real danger of this happening now.