Page last updated at 10:26 GMT, Tuesday, 17 June 2008 11:26 UK

Nuclear power seeks young talent

By James Alexander
BBC News

Scientist Gemma Johnson
Scientist Gemma Johnson says nuclear technology is always developing
A new generation of nuclear power stations has been given the go-ahead by the government - but where are the scientists and engineers to build and run them?

Inside Sellafield nuclear power plant, past the police checks and the barbed wire fences, 26-year-old Gemma Johnson is hard at work in one of the plant's high-security laboratories.

Surrounded by test tubes and bubbling liquids, she is carrying out research aimed at improving the way radioactive waste is treated.

Gemma is one of the much-needed qualified scientists joining the nuclear industry after years of declining recruit numbers.

"I've always been interested in science, and I grew up not far from Sellafield, so in many ways this is the perfect job for me," Gemma says.

"It's exciting because the technology's developing all the time, and there are always new things to work on.

"I've got a project coming up where I'm helping manage a team of nuclear scientists from more than 30 countries, so I get to travel and meet new people. It's brilliant."

'Funny comments'

Gemma's enthusiasm for nuclear energy is not shared by everyone. Opponents say it is expensive, dirty and dangerous.

"You sometimes get a few funny comments when you meet new people, and tell them what you do for a living.

The nuclear industry hasn't done itself any favours by being too secretive. But that's changed in a big way
Dr Peter Bleasdale

"People ask things like 'Do you glow in the dark?' And I say 'Do I look like I glow in the dark?

"And then we talk about it, and I explain if we don't have people who are trained and skilled, powering your hairdryer and all the rest of it, then what are you going to do?

"And then they see it from a different point of view."

For decades, nuclear research in the UK has been in decline. The number of people involved has fallen from around 9,000 in 1980 to just 1,000 a few years ago.

At the same time, the industry's image has been tarnished by accidents such as Chernobyl in 1986.

Tackling concerns about safety is vital to improve the public perception of nuclear energy, according to Peter Bleasdale, managing director of Nexia Solutions, the public sector company that runs the research operation at Sellafield.

"To begin with, there wasn't a clear partition between nuclear weapons programmes and civil nuclear energy for generating electricity," he says.

"But things are different nowadays. There are now safeguards in place to make sure that partition is clear, and there's no mixing of technologies and materials."

Dr Steven Stanley
Dr Steven Stanley's device easily determines levels of radiation

The industry's own "secretive" attitude has not helped its reputation either - "but that's changed in a big way", Mr Bleasdale says.

"We've got a real and critical role to play in energy generation, and we want people to know what we're doing and to get involved."

As part of this process of opening up, researchers at Sellafield are working with schools and universities to put atomic energy onto the curriculum.

They also hope more students will start to think of nuclear energy as a possible career for them.

You see the stereotype professors on TV, pottering away with their fusty books. It's not like that at all
Scientist Gemma Johnson

According to Cogent, the skills body responsible for the nuclear sector, 9,000 graduates will be needed over the next decade simply to maintain existing operations and deal with decommissioning.

The plan to build new power stations will require a further influx of skilled employees.

While the the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority is busy decommissioning Sellafield's old reactors, the site is confident it still has a future - based mainly on research developed in its laboratories.

One innovation already attracting international interest is the "RadBall" - a spherical device that can be placed in a contaminated area to determine the level of radiation present, without the need for an operator or a power supply.

Empty laboratory
Specially-built Sellafield labs will be part of the new National Nuclear Laboratory

It has been developed by one of the senior researchers, Steven Stanley.

"It looks almost like a disco ball," he says as he peers inside.

He explains it is made out of a "special sensitive polymer material, covered by an outer sheath made of lead with lots of little holes in it".

Any radiation passes through the holes and creates patterns inside the ball, which can be analysed to determine the radiation strength.

The benefit is that no person needs to enter potentially contaminated space and put themselves at risk.

Back in the laboratory, Gemma Johnson is getting ready to go home. She takes off her protective goggles and hangs up her lab coat.

"It's frustrating sometimes. You see the stereotype professors on TV, pottering away with their fusty books. It's not like that at all.

"I'm normal. I can party like anyone else. I don't have three heads!"

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