Balfour Beatty and Areva warn that country must ensure it has necessary skills to built nuclear reactor as they announce partnership

Construction firms must strive to boost their nuclear skills if the UK is to have its first new plants up and running by 2017.

This was the message from contractor Balfour Beatty and French energy group Areva, which announced a partnership for bidding to build UK reactors today.

The two firms, which are also linking up with Rolls Royce, said they would work together to build up the necessary nuclear skills to see the ambitious government-backed nuclear plans through.

Andrew McNaughton, Balfour Beatty's chief operating officer, said: “There is a construction supply chain that exists but what we have to do is make sure it has the necessary skills for a new nuclear programme.

“We have started this process early so that we can engage with the supply chain and make sure they have the right information to help them prepare.”

He said he was confident there was sufficient time to prepare the industry for nuclear new build in order to have the first plants on line by 2017.

But Paul Golby, chief executive of energy giant E.ON, warned that the timetable could slip. He said: “I share the ambition but this is an extremely ambitious programme. There's a long way to go and a lot of these things have to slot into place to meet that date. We should be going for that date, but I don't want, 10 years off, to say we are definitely going to hit it.”

Many commentators have expressed doubts about the timetable for new nuclear plants following extensive delays at Areva's EPR projects in Finland and Normandy.

But Luc Oursel, Areva's president and chief executive, today sought to play down the significance of the project setbacks for the UK market.

He said: “The first priority for this project is safety - not to race.” He added that the firm was “learning lessons” from its global projects, which it would apply to its UK programme.

Balfour Beatty said its agreement with Areva focused on the UK market, but did not rule out joint projects abroad in the future.