UK's new nuclear energy dawn threatened by skills shortage

17 February 2012

The government's announcement this morning of a British-French deal on nuclear power stations is very encouraging except for one thing, says the Royal Society of Chemistry.

The UK will have to invest more in the physical sciences to ensure that the country will have sufficient numbers of skilled people to build and maintain the projected eight new nuclear facilities.

The RSC has been pushing for years to persuade government to give more support to chemistry and physics, the two disciplines central to the running of Britain's next generation of nuclear plants.  The skills shortage facing the nuclear sector was highlighted in our 2011 submission to the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee. 

Professor David Phillips, RSC President, said today: "Nuclear power will be a necessary technology for the UK and France as we move towards an energy mix that includes renewable sources. But it is essential that we invest now in education and training to guarantee that our future nuclear workforce can meet the demands of the 21st century."

The Government must ensure, the RSC says, that the UK invests in teaching and research in nuclear sciences to support the resurgence of nuclear power needed to meet the energy needs of the country while cutting carbon emissions.

In its roadmap for the chemical sciences, Chemistry for Tomorrow's World, the RSC identifies nuclear energy as a critical medium term solution to our energy challenges if the UK is to meet its commitments to reduce carbon emissions. Chemists have an important role to play in guaranteeing the safe and efficient harnessing of nuclear energy, and will be integral to delivering the next generation of nuclear technologies.

"A range of scenarios and roadmaps prepared in the United Kingdom estimate that between 12-38 gigawatts of nuclear capacity will be required if a secure, reliable and low carbon energy system is to be in place in the UK by 2050. If we were to replace this capacity with onshore wind, we would need a land area up to the size of one million football pitches, possibly even more.

"Therefore we welcome the government's plans for co-operation with France, where there has been far-sighted investment in nuclear skills development."

Professor Phillips added: "The chemical sciences have a key role to play in this area, including research in novel methods to reprocess spent nuclear fuel, expanding the range of nuclear fuels we can use, providing new methods to store spent fuel, improving the materials we use in nuclear reactors and exploring the developing field of nuclear fusion."

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