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From valves and control systems to AI and robotics: is Sellafield the ultimate engineering training ground?

Blog posted by: , 18 April 2024 – Categories: EngineeringMission deliveryRecruitmentSkills.

Engineering innovation is the backbone of everything we do at Sellafield.

For an engineer, Sellafield is an incredible site. Every current and future building on site utilises engineering. Factor in the range in age, function and technologies within each of these buildings, and you quickly start to understand the broad range of engineering disciplines at Sellafield.

Over the last 70 years, the engineering technologies that are available to us have constantly developed. The ability to adapt, innovate and apply the latest advanced engineering techniques has always been a skill engineers at Sellafield have needed – all whilst retaining skills to work with older technologies. In this sense, the role of an engineer at Sellafield is very similar to previous years.

The main difference now is our mission to lead the country’s nuclear clean-up.

Robotics and AI weren’t part of our vocabulary even 20 years ago, let alone 70 but now we harness these technologies every day to tackle some of the biggest challenges in the nuclear and engineering world.

Obsolescence is the challenge. Imagination is the solution.

From an engineering perspective, the biggest challenge we have here at Sellafield is obsolescence. As well as designing and creating new equipment for projects such as our retrievals programme, we also have to ensure our older systems and technology remain working. This is to keep the site and environment safe.

The cost of replacing these obsolete systems would be astronomical so we play a crucial role in ensuring the best value for taxpayer’s money.

Often, the systems we are looking after are no longer used in modern engineering. This presents an exciting opportunity for our current and future engineers to get imaginative and innovate.

As engineers we love problem-solving and ‘fixing stuff’. Sellafield is our playground.

There is a misconception that working with outdated engineering systems may not be beneficial to budding engineers. I couldn’t disagree more.

As engineers we love problem-solving and ‘fixing stuff’. It's at the core of everything we do. Most engineers that I know and work with are the sorts of people who don’t want to walk into a car showroom and get an ‘off-the-shelf’ brand new model. That would be far too easy. We are the people who want to buy a 50-year old car and tinker with it, maintain it, fix it and find solutions to keep it in good working order. That’s exactly what most of the older Sellafield buildings are but on a massive scale.

Working with our older systems to ensure they remain functioning means our engineers get to find unique problem-solving strategies for unique challenges, every day. It really is one big learning environment for us.

The 40-year-old distributed control system (DCS) for the Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (Thorp) is a prime example. When built, Thorp was one of the largest and most ambitious engineering projects in Europe, rivalled only by the Channel Tunnel and Disneyland Paris.

The DCS system is one of the biggest in the world but it is based on the DCS technology of the eighties. This isn’t a system that we use any longer in modern engineering. So why not replace it? Well, with 970 panels of complex electronics, it isn’t a system that we can simply (or cost-effectively) supersede.

Instead, we have to think outside of the box and get the best out of what we have. Our role is to find ways to fix issues and maintain it until the building starts to be decommissioned. The imagination required by our engineers to do this rivals anything you’ll see at Disneyland Paris.

There is no blueprint for our mission. Engineers are the ones that get to create it.

Sellafield is a unique place and we don’t have an instruction manual on how to maintain and decommission the site safely. We are creating that instruction manual as we go and our engineers are absolutely key to this. We cannot remediate the site safely without them.

This is a mission that will take 100 years so training up the next generation of engineers has never been more important. It is not just about what we do today but how we plan for the future. A big part of my role as head of Operational Technology Group, is to ensure we are training up that next generation through our apprenticeship and graduate schemes.

The opportunities available to engineers who train with us are second to none. They are challenged with finding solutions to problems that no one else in the world is answering and provided with training that spans not just across disciplines but across timescales too. The sky really is the limit.

We are driving future innovation within the engineering industry.

Innovation is fundamental part of being an engineer at Sellafield. If we don’t have innovation, we can’t move forward with our mission.

But our reach as innovators goes far beyond Sellafield. We are a market leader in innovative engineering and nuclear expertise. We lead the way with a lot of NDA and government initiatives.

At the moment, the biggest area we are pushing the boundaries in is AI and robotics. In my team, we are currently looking at the way we can use and push the boundaries of AI in operational technology and in cyber security to help us better understand our data.

Other teams are working robotics, remotely operated vehicles (ROV's), unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV's) and master slave manipulators (MSM's) to ensure we can safely inspect and decommission our facilities. Just last year we announced our partnership with The University of Manchester for our new Robotics and Artificial Intelligence Centre of Expertise which will aid our R&D efforts.

We also have fantastic and very active relationships with all the major engineering institutes. These relationships give us the platform to share our knowledge and findings with the wider engineering industry. These bodies also provide us with a fast-track route for the chartership of our engineers via the work that we do.

Get ready to tackle some of the biggest challenges in the world of nuclear and engineering.

There is no other site like Sellafield in the world. It is the most complex nuclear site in the whole of Europe and we are at the centre of tackling some of the biggest challenges in the nuclear and engineering world.

No two buildings are the same which presents some fascinating opportunities from an engineering perspective. We must always be flexible and curious because every element of what we do has its own unique challenges.

As a mechanical engineer you could be working on everything from cranes to nuclear ventilation. As a control and instrumentation engineer you could be working on radio metrics to control systems. We do all of this whilst harnessing cutting-edge engineering technologies like AI to create state-of-the-art solutions.

What are the critical skills you need as an engineer at Sellafield?

We are tasked with fixing issues that don’t have solutions. Our job is to look at a problem from a whole host of different perspectives and come up with a data-driven solution. We also need to ensure we have the foresight to see potential problems and get ahead of them. I always say that engineers are doing a good job when we are invisible and everything on site is running smoothly.

The critical skills we are looking in our apprentices and graduates are curiosity, imagination and innovation. So, as well as the basic entry qualifications, the most important thing we look for is attitude.

We don’t need a readily trained DCS engineer or a PLC engineer because we can train those skills within our facilities. What we do need are people who want to take ownership, are resilient, determined and have the ability to think outside of the box.

What made you want to work as an engineer at Sellafield?

I think like most people, I never really knew what I wanted to do at school and I definitely never thought about being an engineer. To be honest, I didn’t understand what engineering was about. The advice given to me was to become a tradesman.

At 16, I started my apprenticeship at Sellafield as an instrument mechanic on the cranes in Thorp.

During this time, Sellafield launched their Plant Engineering Training Scheme. I didn’t think it was for me so totally disregarded it. It was my team leader at the time, who saw my potential and said I’d be silly not to apply. So I did! I completed my degree and became an engineer.

From there, through lots of hard work, my career has taken all sorts of different directions. I’ve worked on some incredible projects on site and been at the forefront of a whole host of engineering innovation. I can categorically say that the line of ‘no 2 days are the same’ could not be more true when working as Sellafield.

The only common thread I’ve had are the influential mentors. My whole career as an engineer started by someone seeing something in me that I didn’t see in myself. It is now my turn to invest in the young engineers that come through our department using the best training ground there is.

If you’re interested in joining applying for our engineering and maintenance apprenticeship or graduate positions, here are our latest opportunities.


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