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Energy: Nuclear Development Forum

Volume 703: debated on Monday 14 July 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Who will be invited to take part in the proposed nuclear development forum announced on 12 June; and whether it will include representatives of the bodies engaged in promoting skills and training for work in the nuclear industry.

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State is considering the detailed operation and membership of the nuclear development forum. He expects that members should be invited from across the industry to make the most effective forum for ensuring progress on nuclear new build and would expect this to include those responsible for promoting skills and training. He expects to finalise and publish proposals over the summer.

My Lords, does not the Government’s welcome, if somewhat belated, commitment to a substantial civil nuclear programme make it more important than ever that we have a competent, well trained and skilled workforce for that industry? Do the Government recognise that the National Skills Academy for Nuclear, which enjoys the support of all the leading employers in the industry, is very well placed to address this issue, and should therefore be represented on the nuclear development forum? Is not the commitment of employers absolutely crucial to the development of skills training?

My Lords, I agree but, tempting as it may be, I cannot make the announcement on behalf of the Secretary of State, so we will have to wait for it. However, the National Skills Academy for Nuclear is central in ensuring that we get apprenticeships, foundation degrees and upskilling of existing workers in the nuclear force.

My Lords, is the Minister confident that there will be enough trained individuals to be safety inspectors in 2020, considering that there is such a shortage now? What are the Government doing to ensure that this gap is filled?

My Lords, the Government are fully aware of the potential shortage of skilled nuclear inspectors, which is why we allowed a 15 per cent pay flexibility last year for existing and new staff, and is why the NI was able to recruit nine new inspectors earlier this year and has an ongoing recruitment programme. Dr Tim Stone’s review will look into ways to ensure that the NI is ready for significantly increased new build in the future.

My Lords, to go a step backwards, in order to have these skills presumably the individuals concerned will have to have physics and chemistry in their background. What is being done to increase the number of qualified physics and chemistry teachers in schools?

My Lords, the noble Countess is totally correct in her analysis that that is where we need to start to address the problem. We have a £140 million programme over the next three years to encourage the teaching of science, technology and maths in schools. We also have a programme for recruiting teachers, which includes the use of golden hellos to get them into schools, as well as training existing teachers and providing an entitlement for all children doing GCSEs to study two science GCSEs.

My Lords, when does the noble Baroness expect work to begin on the first replacement nuclear power station?

My Lords, construction is expected to begin in 2013 for the first one, for commissioning between 2017 and 2020.

My Lords, what is being done to encourage more of the able and fully trained women members of the engineering profession to stay in it? They are the leaders of the future, who could well and truly be trained to take on the nuclear energy side of things.

My Lords, the noble Baroness is right that, as in many other skilled professions, the lack of women joining the profession and being retained in it is a key gap. That is why we have a number of what we call engineering ambassadors, who work to encourage girls in particular to join, and why a lot of employers have programmes to try to encourage women to stay in the profession.

My Lords, at lunch today Professor Sir David King stated that we have enough uranium in this country to last for something like 127 years without importing any more, and that that good stock would be of great benefit to our nuclear industry. Many people are concerned on that issue, so does the Minister think that such good news should be more widely broadcast?

My Lords, again, the noble Baroness is right in her assessment. We always take the advice of Professor King, who was the Chief Scientific Adviser.

My Lords, will the Minister congratulate Cogent, the sector skills council which deals with the nuclear industry, on its work in trying to recruit women into that element of its footprint?

My Lords, I again agree; Cogent has done an extremely good job in attracting not just women but younger people into the engineering profession.

My Lords, how many departments of nuclear energy will be recreated in our universities? About 35 years ago, there were at least five. How many are there now, and how many do the Government propose to have in future?

My Lords, I do not know the plans of all individual universities, but I am pleased to say that at least two have started to provide undergraduate degrees in nuclear power, and a significant number provide postgraduate degrees in it. I would be happy to write if the information were available, but of course the plans are undertaken by the universities directly.

My Lords, to make teaching in schools interesting in science and technology, one needs practical and experimental work, and there is a lack of training and support for technicians’ careers in schools. Does the Minister recognise that problem, which was pointed out by the Select Committee on Science and Technology in our report last year, Science Teaching in Schools?

Indeed, my Lords. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families is very well aware of this, which is why we have put significant funding into the ability of young children to have STEM education in schools, part of which requires technicians.

My Lords, the Prime Minister was quoted in the press over the weekend as saying that there were to be eight new nuclear power stations. What output will that represent?

My Lords, the reference to eight nuclear power stations was to the ministerial commitment for new nuclear build to at least replace existing capacity. That will mean that we need eight, but of course, given that new nuclear generation has a greater capacity per generator, that is not a cap, but is simply an aspiration to replace existing nuclear.