Universities: Nuclear Energy Sector Skills - Question

– in the House of Lords at 11:06 am on 7 December 2023.

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Photo of Lord Wigley Lord Wigley Plaid Cymru 11:06, 7 December 2023

To ask His Majesty’s Government what plans they have for increasing investment in universities to provide more opportunities for young people to acquire the skills needed to expand electricity generating capacity in the nuclear energy sector, including nuclear fusion technology.

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education, Lords Spokesperson (Equalities)

My Lords, we recognise the significant demand for skills in the nuclear sector, which are crucial to reaching net zero. We have allocated more than half of the £1.5 billion strategic priorities grant for 2023-24 to support the teaching of high-cost subjects such as science, engineering and technology, all of which can lead to careers in nuclear energy. We are also collaborating with the nuclear skills taskforce, which is devising a plan to expand and enhance the nuclear talent pool.

Photo of Lord Wigley Lord Wigley Plaid Cymru

My Lords, the nuclear skills taskforce estimates a need for 180,000 skilled jobs to deliver 24 gigawatts of nuclear energy and warns that a shortfall of relevant skills could thwart the Government’s target. Is the Minister aware of the current rapid growth in demand for skilled graduates for both the fission and fusion sectors, and that we are way short of matching supply to demand? Will the Government support the proposal from Bangor University, in partnership with the National Nuclear Laboratory, for the establishment of a training reactor, which could help to train engineers and scientists to operate in nuclear facilities in order to produce nuclear medicines and research nuclear materials and components?

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education, Lords Spokesperson (Equalities)

I am aware, as are the Government more broadly, of the shortages and pressures that the noble Lord rightly refers to; he understands that those are global pressures as well as domestic ones. I will write to him on the specific project in Bangor, if I may. More broadly, the Government are absolutely committed to trying to build this workforce and provide skills; obviously, examples such as those he gave sound important in that.

Photo of Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist Conservative

My Lords, my noble friend the Minister will doubtless be aware of the many good examples of apprenticeship schemes serving both the fusion and fission industries, such as the UKAEA’s Oxfordshire Advanced Skills centre, Urenco at Capenhurst, Rolls-Royce in Derby and the Nuclear AMRC in Rotherham. Urenco also sponsors departments at Manchester University and plans to do so at Bangor University. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, rightly said, there is a worldwide skills shortage, with 180,000 job shortages predicted in the UK alone. All these schemes together will not touch the sides in meeting the industry’s requirements. What more can the Government do to encourage young people and teachers to gain the skills necessary to embark on highly rewarding careers in this most exciting of industries?

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education, Lords Spokesperson (Equalities)

My noble friend makes a good point. I share her appreciation for the organisations that she named. We are investing £50 million over the next two years to pilot ways in which to increase the number of apprenticeships in engineering and other key growth sectors, as well as to address barriers to entry into these professions. We will set out more detail on that in the new year, which will, I hope, go some way to addressing her concerns.

Photo of Lord True Lord True Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

There is plenty of time for everybody, if we show the normal courtesies and go round the Chamber.

Photo of Viscount Hanworth Viscount Hanworth Labour

My Lords, I understand that a memorandum of understanding has been signed with the United Arab Emirates to provide it with nuclear technology; if we do not provide it with that technology, the Russians most certainly will. The technology will be of no use unless there are trained personnel to mediate it. Do we intend to train those UAE personnel? If so, where and when should the training begin?

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education, Lords Spokesperson (Equalities)

The noble Viscount will have to forgive me; I am not familiar with the details on that, but I would be happy to write to him.

Photo of Lord Patel Lord Patel Crossbench

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, to develop nuclear technology—including fusion technology—we need many more PhD students working in postgraduate degrees, as well as more funding for those PhDs? Furthermore, as we are now not going to join Euratom and we do not have a prototype fusion reactor, what plans do the Government have to rejoin the ITERInternational Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor—programme?

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education, Lords Spokesperson (Equalities)

The noble Lord is right that we need more PhDs, but we need skills at every level. That is where the Government’s strategy is focusing, starting in schools and building through T-levels, then to high-quality advanced levels up to PhD. The Government are very open to exploring international co-operation in this area—less on the research side, but the AUKUS agreement was a sign of that.

Photo of Earl Russell Earl Russell Liberal Democrat

My Lords, is not the truth of the matter that the UK is not on track to meet its greenhouse gas emission commitments made at COP 26 only two years ago? The climate emergency is now, and it is already probably too late to keep our planet below 2 degrees, let alone 1.5 degrees, of climate change. If nuclear fusion technology is achieved, it will not arrive in time to save us. Should our immediate focus not be on renewable energy skills that can make a fundamental difference to net zero immediately?

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education, Lords Spokesperson (Equalities)

I absolutely do not accept that the UK Government are not on track to meet their climate targets. We are ahead of every other major nation, as the noble Earl knows. We are also doing a lot of work in relation to green skills. Again, we will publish a green jobs plan in the first half of 2024, but we have very attractive green skills offers across every level, from skills boot camps up to the highest possible qualifications.

Photo of Baroness Wilcox of Newport Baroness Wilcox of Newport Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Education), Shadow Spokesperson (Devolved Issues)

My Lords, when I questioned the Minister on skills on 27 November, she replied that the Government had announced £200 million of funding for local skills innovation funds. Are the Government aware of any examples of these local funds being available or currently used in the nuclear energy sector?

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education, Lords Spokesperson (Equalities)

It depends what the noble Baroness means by the nuclear energy sector. There are some big and strategic employers, and we can see regionally—in places such as Cumbria, unsurprisingly, and Bridgwater—that there is a concentration of activity, particularly in higher education and apprenticeships. If we think more broadly of the supply chain for nuclear, I can be very confident that it is included.

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Conservative

My Lords, are not the technical nuclear skills that we need particularly related to smaller and medium-sized nuclear modules and reactors, of which many other countries are now ordering considerable numbers? We seem to be stuck in yet another competition while the order books are getting full. Is this not, in fact, the key to an all-electric future in 2050, without which we will not succeed?

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education, Lords Spokesperson (Equalities)

The Government feel that we have made major commitments in this area. We committed up to £385 million to an advanced nuclear fund to provide funding for small modular reactor design and to progress plans for demonstration examples by the early 2030s at the latest.

Photo of Lord Ravensdale Lord Ravensdale Crossbench

My Lords, I declare my interests in the register. The Midlands region faces particular challenges in this area, with the ramp-up in AUKUS in the near term, which the Minister referred to, and future programmes such as the STEP fusion reactor at West Burton. How do the Government plan to support nuclear skills programmes in the Midlands, and will the Minister agree to meet with me and wider stakeholders to discuss how we can work together in this area?

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education, Lords Spokesperson (Equalities)

I thank the noble Lord. I would be delighted to meet with him and, I hope, include the Skills Minister. I am sure we would learn very much from the noble Lord’s expertise in this area. In response to his first question, I can say that the Government are working really closely with the nuclear sector through the nuclear skills taskforce, which includes representation from Rolls-Royce. The whole aim of the taskforce is to support the sector to develop a plan to build the pipeline that we so badly need. It is obviously excellent to see the development of the Nuclear Skills Academy in Derby, which is training apprentices from levels 3 to 6. The noble Lord will also be aware of all the Institutes of Technology bringing together further education, higher education and employers across the Midlands.