This week, it was announced that a consortium led by Rolls Royce had declared plans to build up to 16 mini-nuclear plants in the UK. The project requires a £200m government investment and is set to create 6,000 manufacturing jobs over the next five years and an additional 34,000 long-term jobs by the mid-2030s.
The consortium, which includes National Nuclear Laboratory, BAM Nuttall and Laing O'Rourke, has stated that, should the government back the concept, it could become a new export industry for the UK.
It’s a shot in the arm for the UK’s manufacturing industry which has faced a series of challenges in recent years, from ongoing uncertainty around Brexit through to skills shortages and, of course, the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. However, even if the plans go ahead, are we celebrating too soon? Here, we look closer at the proposed project and what it could mean for the UK’s industry and the economy on a local, national and global basis.
Rolls Royce stated that up to 80 per cent of the power station components would be made in factories in the Midlands and the North of England, before being transported to existing nuclear sites around the country for rapid assembly.
It’s another much-needed boost, particularly for the North. When the 2010-2015 coalition government put forward the Northern Powerhouse proposals, there was a promise to boost economic growth through the improvement of transport links in key northern hubs and to increase investment in science and innovation.
Fast forward to 2020 and the Northern Powerhouse has amassed many critics who claim not enough action has been taken. Speaking to The Yorkshire Post in October, Ryan Swift, a University of Leeds PhD researcher into the politics of the North, said: “The Northern Powerhouse agenda has had some success as a branding exercise...Its impact in terms of actually delivering significant government investment and policy change for the betterment of the region has been less notable.”
With the vision of the Northern Powerhouse not yet widely considered a reality, news of a government-backed project that brings thousands of new jobs to the area is undoubtedly a step in the right direction for Powerhouse doubters.
With the project pledging to create an initial 6,000 manufacturing jobs and a further 34,000 high-value roles, the opportunities are plentiful for professionals and students specialising in this field. However, will the UK have enough professionals to fulfil such demands?
Data from the government’s recently published Employer Skills Survey 2019 revealed that manufacturing organisations are doing less training than employers in most other sectors, with an average of just five training days per employee per year. This is in spite of the fact that manufacturing has a greater incidence of skills shortage vacancies than any other sector, apart from one: Construction. In fact, the survey found that one in three (36 per cent) vacancies in manufacturing are now skills shortage vacancies, which is mainly due to a lack of necessary specialist technical knowledge amongst applicants.
It’s also worth noting that more than one in ten manufacturers in the UK are EU citizens who will lose their freedom to live, work and study in the UK from 1 January 2021. It means that employers already face a series of challenges recruiting the manufacturing talent they need, which doesn’t bode well for the nuclear project if action isn’t taken now.
The UK’s new export?
Perhaps the most exciting element of the nuclear project is the possibility to provide the UK with a new and highly sought after export. Providing the consortium can prove that its factory concept can deliver high-quality nuclear plants on time and within budget, there is potentially a world market for the technology.
Speaking to the BBC, clean energy consultant Michael Liebreich stated that “the price per unit of energy may be higher than with wind or solar but nuclear delivers power pretty much 24/7 and therefore can command a premium.” Additionally, the concept could be the UK’s solution to tackling the challenge of global climate change, with Liebreich predicting a vast export market as the world switches to low carbon energy.
During a time when uncertainty is swirling around trade deals as a result of Brexit, and with the UK’s future position in the global marketplace called into question, the prospect of a new, highly valuable export is surely music to the ears of industry leaders right now.
The story so far
We know that nuclear projects in the UK have long been the subject of controversy, with environmental campaigners pointing out that nuclear is more expensive than renewables, takes longer to build and produces hazardous waste. On the other hand, advocates state that it provides a valuable source of low-carbon energy to complement the fluctuating output of renewable sources like wind and solar.
Wherever you stand on the issue of nuclear and whatever the outcome of the consortium’s efforts to get the project over the line, there’s no denying that it presents exciting opportunities, particularly in manufacturing. Of course, there are obstacles to overcome, but news of job creation and a potentially lucrative UK export doesn’t come around very often, especially in 2020, so we for one will be watching the story unfold with great interest.