Wanted: experts in toxic waste

A pound;5 million nuclear skills academy will develop much-needed know-how through the decommissioning of power plants. Ian Nash reports

Where there's muck there's money - and few businesses produce more muck than the nuclear power industry.

Apart from the radioactive waste that must be sealed away or recycled, nuclear plants offer a huge supply of concrete, steel and other materials for new building sites. Vast stretches of the M4 motorway rest on the rubble of Harwell processing plant.

Lessons learned from the work of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority provide a wealth of ideas for disposal or reuse of other toxic materials from asbestos to oil. The only thing lacking is a workforce skilled enough to carry out the tasks.

The NDA is therefore investing pound;5 million in a Nuclear Skills Academy at Sellafield, in Cumbria. It will take until 2050 to decommission. Rob Harwood, project manager, hopes it will become one of the Government's post-16 skills academies in the spring.

Leading players in the academy include Lakes college, the University of Central Lancashire, and GENII, an engineering and technology training company formed from five international companies with operations in West Cumbria (British Nuclear Fuels, Corus, Iggesund Paperboard, UCB Surface Specialties and AMEC).

Mike Smith, managing director of GENII, said: "Decommissioning in its simplest form is easy. But with radioactive waste, you need respirators to air-fed sites and complex, well-monitored safety measures.

"We need people skilled in everything from advanced engineering and construction to chemical processing, laboratory work and personnel development."

An additional 21,000 staff training days are needed on the Sellafield site just to gear up for decommissioning. And if the Government gives the go-ahead to a new generation of nuclear power, West Cumbria could be the breeding ground for thousands of UK staff.

It is unlikely that ministers will reject the bid for the new nuclear skills academy. The West Cumbria plant, with the support of local colleges, became a centre of vocational excellence (Cove) in 2003 and provides a range of schemes for 14 to 19-year-olds. The academy would create national and international opportunities.

Regionally, the centre has become a major source of apprentices for other industries because many who complete the qualification choose careers outside the nuclear industry. It has helped many small companies that could not afford full training courses.

Pat Glenday, principal of Lakes college, said the industry was a key player in one of the most economically depressed corners of Britain. "The impact of the nuclear industry on the economy here in West Cumbria cannot be over-estimated, and the need for people with the skills to support that industry is paramount," she said.

Lakes and Furness colleges provide much of the education for the 100 advanced apprentices at the plant each year.

The scheme has a higher-than-average success rate with 98 per cent going on to work with training or to university. Six out of 10 in work continue day release for HNCs, which will become foundation degrees.

Almost 400 apprentices have been recruited since the scheme started - 450 applied this year. Many prefer it to full-time higher education and the prospect of tuition fees and debts.

Apprentice Ian Mickton was attracted by the prospect of getting experience as well as studying. The training unit he works in includes a simulated radiation control plant.

"We are not just learning out of a book but doing practical work we could not experience anywhere else," he said.

Compared with traditional routes to HE, he said, "this is better by miles".

The Cove is switching people on to the practical approach as young as 14. Pupils in 13 schools can volunteer for the Young Apprenticeship, which offers broad practical skills in the nuclear plant, leading to a full NVQ level 1 or 2 (GCSE-equivalent) which most apprentices would not begin until at least 16.

It attracts students from the full ability range, including very high fliers who see nothing demeaning in such hands-on work. It is very demanding since the apprentices are volunteers doing much of the work in their own time alongside their other studies.

Nikki, a 15-year-old from St Benedict's school, said: "It boosts your confidence a lot working with adults."

She wants to be an accountant and will almost certainly go to university.

But she also sees the tremendous advantages the additional qualification and experience will give her.

Many of her classmates have already decided to go on to a full apprenticeship at 16. They will be one step up the ladder when they start, and prospective employers will already have a good grasp of their potential.

Anne Head, their teacher, also sees clear academic gains arising from the greater confidence and self-discipline which the practical work instils.

"I know this year I will see a big improvement in their standards," she said. "This is really helping boost their commitment and quality of work."

Sellafield has an open-access on-site learning centre for the plant's employees who have never had the chance to take qualifications, or who failed at school.

Established with the support of the Government's Union Learning fund, it is staffed by 30 union learning representatives and is set to become part of the much bigger Trades Union Congress learning academy alongside the skills academy.

Decommissioning redundant power plants across the UK is already a pound;60 billion task. But there is an international challenge for which the skills academy could become a central provider of skilled staff and expert managers, says Mike Smith.

Decommissioning is a pound;1.2 trillion global industry. That is why he has eyes on the international prize, which is about more than nuclear power.

"The expertise needed for nuclear industry can be applied to many others,"

he says. "This offers considerable potential."

The skills academy is therefore part of a wider pound;20m plan for West Cumbria, which will include the academy, Nuclear Institute and international centre for decommissioning studies.

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