Nuclear power has long been a polarising topic, from the impact on the environment to misconceptions about the types of people who deliver these projects.
For Sizewell C, EDF’s proposed 3.2GW power station in Suffolk, there is huge opportunity for the megaproject to help transform how nuclear is viewed both in terms of sustainability and diversity – and inspiring more young people to pursue STEM careers will be pivotal to driving this forward.
Sizewell will be an almost identical replica of the Hinkley Point C project in Somerset, and it is hoped that lessons learnt, from design through to delivery, will help to alleviate the inevitable challenges of constructing a complex nuclear project.
However, as well as traditional anxieties around nuclear energy, there are justifiable concerns stemming from the time and cost overruns on the Hinkley project.
In May, EDF revealed that its cost projection for Hinkley had increased by £3 billion to between approximately £25 billion and £26 billion. The start date for generation at the nuclear power station has also been delayed by another year to June 2027.
As well as overcoming the complex logistical challenges experienced by its predecessor, Sizewell must demonstrate that the future of nuclear energy is bright. But is it possible for the project to truly shift public perceptions of large-scale nuclear schemes?
Julia Pyke, financing director at Sizewell C, certainly thinks so. She is confident that bringing a new generation of more diverse talent into the industry will be critical to shaping public opinion on nuclear and how it fits within the wider sustainability agenda.
“I think there’s a cultural change going on…one of the things you’ll find across public attitude surveys is that nuclear is more popular amongst men than women,” says Pyke.
“I can’t help but thinking that the population of the industry is part of the reason for that. Nuclear is so important to society, we need it to be equally popular amongst women as men. Part of that is having a workforce which actually reflects society – and that’s absolutely what we’re aiming for.”
Sarah Williamson, civil nuclear programme director at Laing O’Rourke – who has worked across both Hinkley and Sizewell – says that there is a real drive to change the perception of engineering and construction from the “outdated, stereotypical, always male-focused agenda” to instead reflect the professionals of all genders who are passionate about the contribution they can make.
“As a result, it becomes a much more colourful story than just ‘oh my goodness, nuclear is scary’,” she adds.
A project of such scale requires an equally large pool of skilled workers to deliver it. To meet the challenge, the project has established a training hub in the northwest of England to unlock a “huge reservoir of untapped talent”, says Williamson.
“Our plan is to work with the training providers and industry in the region so that we can find that talent and we can provide them with work close to where they live.”
The project is also tapping into the government’s Kickstart Scheme, which takes 16 to 24 year olds who are not in education or training, and employs them for six months in the hope that they secure a full-time permanent job, or learn broader skills that will make them more employable.
Pyke explains that the sheer size of the project and its supply chain has made it possible to participate in the initiative and offer a variety of training opportunities.
“In Britain, quite often there’s a mantra of ‘small is beautiful’. Small can be beautiful, but big can also be really beautiful,” says Pyke “[The Kickstart Scheme] is quite bureaucratic and you have to take 30. Most employers can’t possibly take 30 people, but because we’re big and we’ve got a network of 2,500 suppliers for Hinkley, we already have a consortium of about 300 signed up for Sizewell.
“We identified the opportunity to be the employer, but get a lot of our consortium suppliers to take individual candidates so we can provide lots more opportunities.”
Despite the progress that is being made to establish a diverse workforce across the project, Williamson believes there is a lot more work for the industry to do to ensure that a career in nuclear or construction is an attractive proposition.
“I see some really bright people at junior levels, but I don’t think we’re pulling them through fast enough. I don’t think we’re changing the status quo fast enough and I think that can be really disillusioning for the generation that we really need to engage with,” she says.
“They’re inheriting a planet that is not in great shape and an economy that’s not in great shape. We need to make sure that their voices are heard. It seems like we have a leadership layer of a certain age and a certain demographic that’s just not shifting the issue quickly enough.”
While there is a real focus on ensuring more diverse voices help to shape Sizewell, Williamson insists that environmental, social and governance objectives are not just “a tick box exercise”.
“Construction will take a few years, so we need to make sure that we future proof and that we’re planning a green site,” she says. “The beautiful thing here is that we have the opportunity to set the site up in a way that is properly inclusive. Not only will it be green, but we live and breathe it – does everyone feel welcomed, valued and understood? It’s down to how we provide PPE and toilet facilities, for example, to ensure it is an inclusive site.”
In terms of the project’s net zero considerations, the site is also being set up to maximise the use of hydrogen and electric vehicles, which is expected to trigger wider benefits for local stakeholders.
“Again, because we’re big, we have opportunities to really kickstart a lot of this stuff,” explains Pyke. “For us to order 180 hydrogen buses is a game changer for the hydrogen bus industry. And for us to put hydrogen filling stations like petrol pumps into Suffolk, we open up opportunities for other people in Suffolk; the council, Anglian Water and other big businesses who have heavy vehicles where they want to clean them up and move off diesel. It’s a great example of how we’re working in collaboration.”
Looking ahead, Pyke outlines her hopes for the project’s longer-term legacy. “I hope that we demonstrate that we are able to deliver a copy [of Hinkley], we demonstrate that we’re able to deliver it with increasing sustainability, and that we have trained a diverse workforce,” she says.
“Also, that we succeeded in embedding nuclear in political and public acceptance so that there is a robust programme and all of these kids that we’ve trained go on to build as many of these types of projects as the country needs.”