Billions are going to be spent on nuclear power stations in the next 10 years, assuming, that is, we can find 33,000 recruits in a hurry. Which is where you come in...

As we know, the most reliable way of becoming a superhero is to have some kind of accident involving radioactivity. In the case of Tim Scroggins, the mild-mannered construction manager who built a neutrino-generator in his potting shed using a meteorite he found while camping in the New Forest (it’s a long story), the mishap turned him into Captain Uranium, able to build nuclear power stations wearing only his underpants, and boil water for tea by looking at it.

In our own time–space continuum, the transformative possibilities of nuclear energy are still fairly impressive, and have the additional advantage that you don’t have to have a nasty accident first.

The forthcoming nuclear new-build programme in the UK is, unlike most sectors, immune to spending cuts: if ageing reactors are not replaced, the lights will go out sometime around 2020. EDF, the French energy firm, is planning to put its first project, worth in the region of £8bn, out to the market later this year. Nuclear decommissioning is also a thriving market; the Amec consortium’s deal to clean up Sellafield is worth £22bn and dozens of other sites need similar treatment.

With such a market for skills, you would expect every man and his dog to be getting in on the act. But when recruitment firm Macallan placed an advert for a nuclear programme manager in a newspaper earlier this year, just one person applied – and even he wasn’t qualified. The reason is simply that the UK has not built nuclear plant since the early nineties and engineers with experience have mostly moved on or retired.

“Nuclear power has been winding down in the UK for the past 15 to 20 years and the skill shortages are serious,” says Eliot Davies, national operations director of Hays Energy. The National Skills Academy for Nuclear estimates that 1,500 skilled people have to be replaced each year, with an extra 18,000 brought in for decommissioning, new build and defence. Roles range from environmental consultant to QS and project monitor for the regulatory authority.

There are still many unanswered questions that make it difficult both for firms to formulate concrete strategies and individuals to know where to position themselves – how will the contracts be let? Which type of reactor will the government select? Will French engineers come in with EDF or Areva to run the show? Nevertheless, the industry is creaking into action – and could provide a lifeline to workers willing to get to grips with a new specialism.

Behzad Bhot is one industry newcomer to have spotted the sector’s potential. He left a job in manufacturing to join Atkins three months ago with a view to getting involved in nuclear. “I was looking for a change and it made sense. If you look at the newspapers, all the stories on engineering are about power and nuclear. That’s where everyone is investing. Fossil fuels are running out so people know it’s the future – if you stick to it, your career is more likely to blossom.”

Atkins was a good choice. The firm has established a nuclear academy, run through institutions including Surrey university, which is shifting its focus from decommissioning to new build as the construction programme approaches. Over the past two years, Atkins has put 500 people, including staff from Faithful + Gould, its QS arm, through about 30 courses ranging from an introduction to the industry to the design of fuel storage facilities. Last month Bhot did a day’s cramming on radiation physics.

In the past, we’d be looking for Joe Bloggs with 20 years’ nuclear experience. Now we are looking for Joe Bloggs with 20 years in any sector

Chris Ball, Atkins

Chris Ball, Atkins’ nuclear director, says the academy allows the firm to ramp up capability without prematurely committing huge numbers of staff to the sector. Its nuclear business is about 700 strong but there are a further 1,000 people who could be moved over if substantial contracts were won. “We can train people, let them continue their work as they were but when we need to respond to client demands, we can pull them into this sector quickly,” he says.

It also eases the recruitment process. “In the past we would be looking for Joe Bloggs with 20 years’ nuclear experience,” he says. “Now we are looking for Joe Bloggs with 20 years in any sector. Then we put him through a formal training regime.” Ball is so concerned about the skills shortage in the wider sector that he is considering opening up the academy to non-Atkins people. It already has links with the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority’s own graduate and post-graduate training programmes. Last week, another academy, Energus, was opened in Cumbria. It is overseen by the authority and local partners and runs vocational energy courses.

Some argue this level of investment and training is unnecessary – much of the work will be ordinary civils and construction, or familiar tasks such as environmental impact assessments. Ball disagrees. “A civil engineer designing a building for the nuclear industry might design one with walls that were 30cm thick. But the nuclear sector dictates that they need to be twice as thick for radiation shielding. If you give someone that knowledge, when they come to design that facility, they don’t need to be told.”

Other firms are addressing the issue in a less formal way. Costain, for instance, is siphoning people into its nuclear division from other parts of the business, such as oil and gas, water and infrastructure, and teaching them about issues such as site licencing. And some are recruiting promising people from other industries – mostly those with an emphasis on safety. “Primarily firms are tending to take people on from what are classed as safe engineering environments – namely the aerospace and oil and gas industries,” says Steve Prendergast, a director of Macallan, who has worked at Amec and Costain and was involved in the last wave of nuclear power stations. “In those industries there is a set of parameters that you have to follow to the letter. General construction is not as stringent.”

He says companies that have a track record in nuclear are losing staff as rival firms offer more generous pay packages. But Alistair Smith, nuclear services director at Parsons Brinckerhoff, warns against jumping ship too soon. “We don’t know who is going to own the contracts so moving now could be a disaster. A company that wants to boost its capability but then doesn’t win anything could shed staff very quickly.”

But keeping an eye on the industry won’t hurt. Major players include Balfour Beatty, which is already allied with Areva; Sir Robert McAlpine, which bought Taylor Woodrow’s nuclear consultancy in 2007; and Bouygues, now building plants in Finland and France. They are all thought to be in discussions over supply chain alliances.

An alternative to the wait-and-see strategy is to move into the utility market – EDF is recruiting now – or to seek opportunities abroad: Canada, for instance, is already building reactors. It may sound radical but experience on a new-build project is gold dust; a programme manager on a nuclear site could secure a 15% premium on the construction sector, according to Prendergast. And the long-term ambition for nuclear plants around the world means a secure future. “This is a key source of power going forward, dominated by French and American technology,” says Prendergast. “If you know what you’re doing, you’ll be able to fly all over the world with those building power stations.” Flying all over the world? You could be a superhero yet.

Nuclear facts and figures

  • The nuclear industry currently supports 80,000 jobs across 27 sites, ranging from research and development to decommissioning.
  • It is thought 1,500 skilled people will need to be replaced each year, with an extra 18,000 brought in for decommissioning, new build and defence.
  • British Energy (now owned by EDF) expects 30% of highly skilled nuclear professionals to retire in the next decade.
  • The government wants the private sector to build at least eight new plants by 2023.
  • The first plant is expected to be up and running by late 2017.
  • EDF and RWE/E.On already own sites for new build. A Suez, Iberdrola and Scottish and Southern consortium is also likely to secure one.
  • EDF's first packages, to be tendered this year, will be worth about £700m