TM's George Archer talked to Dr Caroline Sudworth, Science and Higher Level Skills development manager at Cogent about the recent ‘Nuclear Island’ pilot project that took place over a week at Bircham Newton, Norfolk. The successes of the project demonstrate that expansion to other education institutions is at the least viable, and at the best potentially extremely beneficial not just for the UK’s nuclear industry but for the world’s.
GA: What actually went on over in Norfolk last week?
CS: The nuclear island project is carried out as a scale down full construction of a nuclear core; Students are on an active construction site for a full week, with the nuclear island embedding additional nuclear behaviours including site security – we had some other students protesting at the gates – but also embedding additional quality and construction tests.
Imperial are the pilot university, and in association with Expedition Engineering and John Doyle, students work with employees of these two companies on site for the week. Any alterations have to be run by the employer teams.
Although all the students that attended were from Imperial College, part of the University of London, Cogent and its partners have plans to expand to include students from at least five other Universities across the country: The University of Birmingham, Leeds University, Bridgwater College, Somerset, The University of Manchester and Glyndŵr University, Wales.
Students are provided with a scaled down nuclear core reactor design – they then go to the site, and from a bare patch of ground they have to turn that design into a nuclear core roughly to a 1/300th scale. This ensures teamwork and project management skills are truly tested. It also ensures concrete structures and rebars (metal reinforcements) are constructed and delivered on time. The project teaches students how to make sure that equipment is there on time, and that the team is able to cope with the loads – it really is a hands on practical training experience – many students have only ever put together a flatpack. Last week, they learnt how to handle and project manage a real construction build.
GA: Was the project a success?
CS: Well, for a start, considering no one has ever done this before the week went really well. We managed to construct a scaled down nuclear core reactor in the space of a week, so yes, it did go well!
As well as the week on site with nuclear and civil engineers, they have to look at other things such as handling the media and climate change as a whole. This is something that is very much absent from traditional university teaching at the moment.
GA: What are the benefits you have already seen?
CS: One of the benefits that we have already proven is that academics in universities don’t really have time to talk to each other. It stimulates a transfer of knowledge between faculties and departments inside individual universities, but also with other UK’s higher education institutions.
We are already getting staff at universities talking to each other about the nuclear skills sector, but one of our aims is to get staff from universities across the UK to start networking and talking to each other.
GA: And what are the benefits that you hope to see?
CS: The idea of this project is to bring a standalone module together that all universities can use. There are actually great deals of civil engineer lecturers at universities that don’t know how best to embed critical knowledge and information related to the nuclear power sector.
To support this, a CPD package for academics will also be developed; ensuring knowledge transfer between industry and STEM subjects is met. There are also requests from industry to expand the programme to incorporate Apprentices and graduate CPD training – here we need to identify the right funding model and partners to work with.
We want civil engineering graduates to have some idea of what nuclear construction is about, not just of how to build the Gherkin! Nuclear construction is sometimes seen as an unattractive option for civil engineers, because the actual buildings involved are not as pretty as the nice, shiny glass fronted buildings typically seen in cities.
Through this consortium, we will be refining and expanding the programme into other STEM areas – including mechanical, electrical and chemical engineering, physics, mathematics etc – building a module that can then be used to trial the programme by these partners in spring 2012, before dissemination and uptake by other academic partners in the future.