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Why Does the UK Need Nuclear Inspectors?

Nov 19 2017 Comments 0

The UK faces a race against time to fill vacancies for nuclear inspectors before it leaves the EU in March 2019, according to senior figures in the sector. The experts gave their advice to the governmental business committee at the beginning of the month and pointed out that a limited talent pool meant that Britain could struggle to meet its safety obligations in time for Brexit.

Richard Harrington, who serves as the energy minister for the Tory government, was quick to downplay fears and claimed there was “plenty of time” to fill the vacant slots. However, to date, only four new inspectors have been hired, with experts estimating that between 10 and 12 new specialists will need to be recruited by 2019. If they are not, it could cause significant disruption to the UK energy industry.

Safeguarding not safety

In the wake of disasters in Chernobyl and Fukushima, nuclear energy has understandably been a controversial subject for many. But while the industry is firmly regulated from a safety standpoint (just like coal, oil and IGCC power plants are), the government has been keen to highlight that these new inspectors deal with safeguarding, not safety itself.

What’s the difference? Well, safeguarding inspectors are responsible for ensuring that nuclear material is only used for energy generation purposes, and not for weapons programmes or the suchlike. Safety, on the other hand, covers the measures by which further incidents such as those mentioned above are avoided.

But while safeguarding might not seem as crucial to the industry as safety, in reality it’s every bit as important. Without the sufficient number of inspectors, Britain’s nuclear reactors will not be allowed to run, potentially causing serious disruption to the UK’s energy generation capabilities.

Leaving Euratom

According to Mr Harrington, the decision to leave the EU in March 2019 necessarily entails that the country also leave Euratom at the same time, which is the agency responsible for regulating the nuclear industry in Europe for 60 years.

However, the four senior experts who gave evidence to the business committee at the beginning of the month claimed that there was no benefit whatsoever to leaving the bloc, and even by Mr Harrington’s own admission, the new agency would resemble Euratom “as closely as possible”. For those reasons, many people have questioned the sense in opting out of the agency in the first place.

With nuclear reactors having played an increasingly important role in meeting climate change targets over recent years, it’s imperative that the new officials are sourced before the deadline to avoid temporary closure of the plants.

“Limited pool of expertise”

The Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) has admitted they may struggle to locate enough British nationals to fill the vacancies, especially as they were working from a “limited pool of expertise” and those qualified for the position could command a salary of up to £99,000 per annum.

“To get to a point where we can deliver a regime by 2019 we need 10 to 12 additional inspectors and for us to be able to be up and running by two years after that probably around 20 to 25 inspectors,” explained Mina Golsham, deputy chief inspector at the ONR.

Although Mr Harrington claimed he was confident that the roles would be filled on time, he stopped short of offering any firm guarantees on that front. “When recruiting it depends who replies in response to an advert,” he stated. At present, recruitment has been put on hold until the Nuclear Safeguarding Bill is confirmed.

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