Limits to growth

Friday, November 7, 2008

A new generation of nuclear plants requires a new generation of nuclear physicists

MUCH more than worries about safety, the biggest obstacle to the revival of nuclear power in Britain is cost. Atom-splitting is expensive, with brochure prices for reactors starting around £3 billion, and dizzying lurches in oil prices make it hard to evaluate the industry’s competitiveness. “Nuclear power works for oil prices above $60 a barrel,” said a government adviser confidently in early October, when it was still near $100. As The Economist went to press, the price of oil was hovering around $64, barely above that margin of safety.

But even if financial worries can be overcome, there are other obstacles to a nuclear renaissance. Among them is a global shortage of manufacturing capacity for important components: only one Japanese firm is currently capable of making reactor pressure vessels, for instance. And this once-in-a-generation overhaul of the electricity grid is not the only grand engineering scheme in the works in Britain. Crossrail (a link through London), the 2012 Olympic games, an enormous housing development in London’s Thames Gateway and the dismantling of old nuclear reactors will all absorb welders, joiners, engineers and raw materials, pushing up costs and leaving less for new nuclear plants.

The biggest problem, though, is a shortage of qualified scientists, engineers and technicians. Nuclear power’s long unpopularity has left the industry depleted, and many of those who remain are greybeards. Cogent, an industry training body, reckons that between a fifth and a third of nuclear workers will retire in the next decade, just when their knowledge will be in greatest demand. The government forecasts that up to 1,500 workers need to be replaced every year merely to maintain the status quo. Decommissioning old reactors and building new ones will require 18,000 more over the next 20 years.

Much thought has been expended on filling the gap. On November 4th the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), the office charged with shutting down and cleaning up Britain’s ancient first-generation reactors, launched a training drive, promising to create a national nuclear laboratory and promote careers in nuclear physics for youngsters. Ministers have set up a “National Skills Academy for Nuclear”, which offers foundation degrees and lower-level vocational qualifications.

They are particularly keen on turning out academic engineers and physicists with specialised masters’ degrees. That could be difficult, however. Physics teaching is in a parlous state, says Peter Main of the Institute of Physics, with only around 3,000 undergraduate physicists getting degrees each year and a severe shortage of specialised teachers in schools. In the past many physics graduates have vanished into the City, attracted by sky-high salaries in finance. That may change: the NDA estimates that it will spend around £74 billion over 130 years, and there is keen corporate interest in new reactors too—which suggests that careers in nuclear power will become more lucrative. Birmingham University, which offers a master’s degree in reactor physics, has seen applications treble in the past three years, and other universities have started offering similar courses. British Energy, a nuclear-plant operator, says more graduates are applying for jobs too: it now gets 45 applicants for each position.

Yet Mr Main is wary of market signals. “Students do not often realistically research their career prospects,” he says, and frets that some could be put off by the nuclear industry’s tainted reputation. Even that, though, could change. Nuclear power splits green opinion like nothing else, and although groups such as Greenpeace remain opposed, iconic environmentalists including James Lovelock and Patrick Moore (one of Greenpeace’s founders) have come out in support of atom-splitting as the solution to a warming planet.

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