Could nuclear be the future for you?

Published: 23 Dec 2014

Nuclear is set to be a key part in maintaining Britain's energy security. That means big infrastructure projects, and lots of opportunities for engineers.

As we transition away from fossil fuels, wind, solar and hydro power will all play their part, but plans for nuclear are already under way. After all, we have more experience with atomic power, and it has already proven itself capable of reliably providing energy on a national level.

There are firm plans to build at least 12 new reactors in the UK between now and the 2020s, capable of producing up to 16GW of power –  nearly half the country's energy capacity. Nuclear is also due a renaissance internationally, providing even more opportunities for young engineers.

Atomic opportunities

The opportunities don't end once the big infrastructural construction jobs are over. There is, of course, day to day operation, and the clean-up and 'legacy' side of the industry. When job security is increasingly scarce, the long-term prospects of a nuclear engineering job are about as solid as they come.

In decommissioning alone, there are 20 reactors currently being decommissioned in the UK, with the job expected to be complete around 2080. Meanwhile, there are another 14 currently operational reactors expected to reach the end of their lives within 10 years; at which point they will also require decommissioning. The estimated total cost is £73 billion.

And the starting salaries are good too. Graduates start on £28,000 – well above the national average.

The nuclear pathway

So how do you get into nuclear?

Broadly speaking, there are two paths. The graduate scheme route, and the hands-on route. Nuclear is one of the few industries left where centralised graduate programmes still run. EDF takes on 60 graduates every year, while opportunities are also available from the National Nuclear Laboratory, Nuvia, Cavendish Nuclear, AMEC, Sellafield and Springfields Fuels.

Generally these schemes involve a broad initial training phase before moving on to more specialised work, usually depending on which branch of engineering you studied at university. If you get onto one of these schemes, expect to move a few times during the training phase.

The other route, as with any sector, is to start at a more junior level and work your way up. As much as graduate schemes can get you ahead, any discipline involves a lifetime of experience and training.

You might, for example, start as a trainee operations engineer before moving on to be a reactor operator, working with a team in the control room to operate, shut down and start up the plant safely. This is just one route among many.

As we transition to a low-carbon economy, the UK's energy mix is still far from being determined. But it looks like a career in nuclear could be about as secure as it gets for today's engineering graduates. 

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