Firing up the North for the next century

The decommissioning of Sellafield nuclear plant has resulted in a huge skills programme that will continue for generations to come.

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Sellafield is the most long-term engineering project in the world. The site’s clean-up mission will last into the 2120s; imagining life so far into the future is usually the domain of science-fiction writers. To put it into context: the grandparents of the people who’ll finish the job of decommissioning Sellafield haven’t yet been born.

So how do those leading the mission now ensure the right skills will be available decades into the future? It’s a challenge the site’s operator Sellafield Ltd, and its owner the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, take very seriously, as Jamie Reed, the company’s head of corporate affairs, explains. “Sellafield has always been about delivering in the national interest,” he says. “In the 1950s, we made the material for the UK’s nuclear deterrent, helping keep the peace during the Cold War.

“We then perfected the technology for the first two generations of Britain’s civil nuclear power industry. And now, we’re a world leader in the future growth areas of decommissioning and waste management.

“Throughout these eras, the business has been driven by the unique skills of its workforce and supply chain. There is no comparable mix of skills and expertise anywhere in the world. For example, we are home to the only concentration of plutonium handling skills in the country.

“With that comes huge responsibility: we are the custodians of the UK’s technical capacity in nuclear. We need to keep those skills honed and ready if the UK is to fulfil its nuclear ambitions.”

Creating and developing a highly skilled workforce has long been a Sellafield trait.The company identified a surfeit of project managers a decade ago and calculated the shortage could threaten the delivery of its decommissioning programme.

In response it launched the Sellafield Project Academy, in collaboration with the University of Cumbria and the Association of Project Managers. To date, more than 1,000 people have graduated. The model is being explored by a host of UK blue chips.

Next, the company is looking to create a centre of excellence for “alpha” skills – the skills necessary to deal with plutonium.

“We’ve always had to ‘grow our own’ to some degree,” says Reed. “We don’t have a string of Russell Group universities on our doorstep providing a conveyor belt of higher level skills, but the fact remains that the completion of the Sellafield mission requires some of the best minds available anywhere in the world.

“More importantly, we have a duty to ensure the opportunities that exist at Sellafield can be accessed by people living locally. That means helping to create the educational infrastructure to deliver the skills people need to maximise those opportunities.”

That infrastructure includes a university technical college (UTC) , an apprentice training centre, a construction skills hub, the National College for Nuclear, and the Dalton Cumbria Facility (DCF) for post-graduate research.

“Within a radius of a few miles, young people can access skills that give them a pathway into the nuclear industry from 14-year-olds at the UTC to PhD students using our equivalent of the Large Hadron Collider at DCF.”

It’s this devotion to ensuring local people benefit from the £2bn-a-year Sellafield decommissioning programme which is driving the company’s latest educational interventions.

Sellafield Ltd has now played a pivotal role in the development of two new schools: Westlakes Academy, in Egremont, now the second best performing secondary in Cumbria; and Campus Whitehaven, a two-school site featuring a secondary school and a school for children with special educational needs.

“That’s our focus now – helping to close the attainment gap at secondary school level,” says Reed. “To successfully deliver our mission and to help the community build a sustainable and diverse economy that isn’t dependent on Sellafield, we need a base of strong educational attainment.

“Our social impact strategy is focused on investments that create the conditions for long-term sustainable improvements. Working with the NDA and Cumbria County Council, our interventions are aimed at raising teaching standards, closing the attainment gap for students from disadvantaged homes, and promoting healthy lifestyles and mental wellbeing.

“If you look at the government’s Industrial Strategy it identifies three areas of predicted growth that we have to be ready to grasp: artificial intelligence, machine learning, and the data-driven economy.

“Sellafield and west Cumbria were at the forefront of the major technological breakthroughs of the 20th century. We’re determined to make sure we’re in the vanguard of 21st century change.

“The beauty of the Sellafield mission is that it’s fluid and flexible enough to benefit from emerging technologies. We know exactly what we need to do, and in what order we need to do it in, but the details beyond the next decade or so are not nailed down and iteration is inevitable. In fact, we’re actively looking for new technology to enhance our programme and make us safer and more efficient.

“In recent years, the emergence of remotely-operated vehicles has transformed our mission. We can now access areas of the site which were previously beyond the human eye. More importantly, we can use that technology to reduce human exposure to radiation at the workface.

“Our vision for west Cumbria is to help enable a high-performing, Silicon Valley-style centre of excellence, developing technology to solve the challenges at Sellafield which can be exported into other markets, creating economic value and sustaining a strong services sector.

“We will need a broad base of high-level skills to achieve our ambitions, but I think we’re already proving that with a clear and unified vision, a methodical and collaborative approach to education, and a collective belief in what we’re trying to achieve, then we can be successful.”

Matt Legg is senior media relations manager at Sellafield.