THE NUCLEAR industry needs to attract increasing numbers of recruits, presenting vocational training opportunities for colleges and private training companies.
While it has relied on taking on graduates, apprenticeships have become an equally important route for recruiting the technicians who run and maintain power stations.
Traditionally, employers took on students with science, engineering or technical qualifications and trained them in specialist nuclear industry skills. Cogent, the sector skills council, said employers are keen to work more closely with schools and colleges.
The industry uses 24 further education colleges, some of which offer NVQs in nuclear decommissioning and radiation protection.
Seventy-two per cent of nuclear employers report skill gaps. Most often cited are project management, technical and practical skills.
The industry is concerned about the difficulty of recruiting for nuclear decommissioning and clean-up jobs just as numbers of students choosing sciences and engineering at school have been in decline.
Cogent said employers also recognise they are missing out on a significant number of potential recruits: only 18 per cent of the industry's workforce are women.
British Energy is the UK's biggest power generator and runs eight nuclear stations, including Sizewell B in Suffolk, Dungeness in Kent and Hinkley Point in Somerset. The company works with FE colleges and private providers to run four-year apprenticeship schemes, covering electrical, mechanical or instrumentation skills. This often provides progression to higher education.
"Looking ahead to the potential of new build, we definitely would take on a lot more apprentices," said spokeswoman Sue Fletcher.
"We need to make sure we keep a healthy flow of apprentices coming into the company because we have quite an ageing workforce."
Bridgwater College in Somerset has been involved in nuclear industry training since the Hinkley Point power station began generating in 1965.
Hinkley Point A was shut down six years ago and is going through decommissioning.
The college is working with the British Nuclear Group to retrain staff to NVQ level 2 (GCSE equivalent) in nuclear decommissioning, which involves dismantling buildings. So, as well as radiation safety training, students learn about construction and deconstruction, how to work safely at heights and dealing with asbestos.
The college also trains engineering apprentices for British Energy and is in talks with the National Skills Academy for Nuclear about co-ordinating training across power stations in the South West.
Neil Punnett, its head of humanities and science, sees huge potential for colleges. "There are many nuclear power stations across the country, so for FE I think it's a particularly fruitful field to get into," he said. "The skills we have in science, construction and engineering can be very useful for decommissioning technology, provided we work alongside the industry."
The operating stations and their closure dates are:
Oldbury on Severn 2008
Hinkley Point B 2011
Hunterston B 2011
Heysham 1 2014
Dungeness B 2018
Heysham 2 2023
Sizewell B 2035