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Energy: Nuclear Industry

Volume 708: debated on Monday 23 February 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the level of recruitment into the nuclear industry and of progress in the provision of training of staff for work at all levels in the industry.

My Lords, Cogent, the sector skills council responsible for nuclear, is undertaking a large study to assess the nuclear skills requirements across all sectors over the next few decades. This work will be complete around the end of summer of this year.

My Lords, that is all very well, but is not the immediate problem much more serious than that? Does the Minister realise that the greatest problem that the industry now faces is the inability of the nuclear regulator to recruit and train the staff needed to perform its functions, particularly the generic design assessment of new designs? Is it not also the case that Dr Tim Stone, the Government’s adviser, specifically recommended to Ministers that certain rigid Civil Service rules about salaries in the first two years of employment should not apply to the nuclear regulator, given its staffing difficulties? Why have the Government refused to implement that recommendation?

My Lords, the noble Lord is right to draw attention to some of the pressures that have faced the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate. Dr Tim Stone was commissioned to carry out a review, as a result of which a short-term pay deal is under negotiation with the trade unions. That will introduce a range of factors that we hope will address some of the short-term recruitment and retention problems. A satellite office is being established in London and one is to be established in Cheltenham, which are both strategic locations for recruitment. A restructuring of the nuclear inspectorate is proposed to deal with the very issues that the noble Lord has rightly raised.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the picture is not quite as gloomy as that painted by the noble Lord? Indeed, while the Nuclear Industry Association, which I chair, is in no way sanguine, it recognises that a lot is being done. However, it has to be said that, as with the reform of the NII, we get dribs and drabs of information when the House requires a comprehensive statement of where we are. That would be helpful and would probably be more useful than the kind of question and answer session that we are having. Will the Minister take that on board?

My Lords, I will certainly see whether I can produce a Written Statement or other information, which I am sure would benefit the House. As far as the nuclear regulator is concerned, one should also pay tribute to the tremendous work and skills of the people employed by the Nuclear Directorate. We hope that the measures that we are now taking will ensure that it has the right number and quality of people whom it needs for the future, particularly as we move into the new nuclear regime.

My Lords, I am sure that the Government will accept that we have a real problem. This is all taking too long. Tim Stone’s report came in, but it has taken the Government six months to answer it. Now the Minister tells us that they are going to take on a large study. I cannot understand why they are taking so long when this country is in such a desperate state due to the lack of its own energy.

My Lords, there are two points here. The study to which I referred in my Answer to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, concerns the requirements of the nuclear industry generally. The specific question that he raised concerned the regulator. Frankly, it is unfair to say that the Government have not responded. We commissioned the review. We are looking at it seriously. We are negotiating with the trade unions. We have established a satellite office in London because that is an important recruitment centre. We are taking a number of other actions. We are not complacent but, equally, the nuclear industry is at an important stage; hence, we are asking the sector skills council to produce the review, which will be published in the summer.

My Lords, to follow the Minister’s point, most of the new nuclear fleet will not be in operation until the middle of the 2020s or the 2030s, so most of the people who will be working in the nuclear industry are currently still at school or even at university. Is there not a lack of capacity within the school and university system to train on these issues? If that is the case, are we not storing up problems for the future?

My Lords, the first new nuclear station, which EDF is proposing, will come on stream in 2018 or the end of 2017. There should then be a regular programme of new nuclear stations opening. The point that the noble Lord makes is relevant, which is why the Government have taken action to enhance the teaching of maths, physics, chemistry and technology as key subjects in schools. We are also looking at graduate programmes to encourage people to come into what should be an exciting industry in the future.

My Lords, should not the reduced employment prospects in conditions of increasing unemployment potentially increase recruitment opportunities in the nuclear industry?

My Lords, clearly this should be an extremely attractive industry for young people to go into. We will do everything that we can to encourage them to do so. The prospect for the industry is brighter than ever. My noble friend is right to point out its huge potential for young people in this country, not just in terms of nuclear stations but in the supply chain.