Powering up Australia’s Nuclear Skills Forum

In years gone by, Australian manufacturing had the benefit of cheap, abundant energy. This helped companies like BHP to build steel mills and for Boral to produce roof tiles, plasterboard, asphalt, and bricks. However, over the last 10 years, Australia’s high energy costs and declining energy security have impaired the ability of local manufacturers to compete globally.

“The cost of energy in Australia has gone through the roof. It is pulling the handbrake on business and cutting the opportunities for the next generation of manufacturers. It is time for the nuclear option,” said Michael Sharpe (National Director Industry, AMGC).

Sharpe has established, and significantly expanded, the Nuclear Skills Forum over the last 12 months. The aim of Nuclear Skills Forum is to foster the growth of Australia’s local nuclear industry, including manufacturing for energy production and nuclear propulsion systems in space.

“My plan is for more Australian manufacturers to join the existing global supply chains for the nuclear power industry and build those skills,” said Sharpe.

the beginnings of the Nuclear Skills Forum

“Early last year, I attended an Industry Advisory Panel meeting at University of New South Wales (UNSW) where Dr Ed Obbard, a nuclear materials engineer and senior lecturer, talked about the skills needed for the nuclear industry. I rang Dr Obbard that afternoon and arranged to meet. It was a refreshing conversation and we agreed to form the Nuclear Skills Forum. I told Ed about my own experience in seeing companies expand into the space industry supply chains since the formation of the Australian Space Agency and the skills uplift. Surely we could achieve similar outcomes by connecting Australian manufacturers into the global nuclear industry,” said Sharpe.

“At the next meeting in April, I invited three leading manufacturers that are involved in such things as pressure vessels, advanced composites and other specialised equipment. We met at UNSW and explored the opportunities. We started to map out the potential and agreed that our next meeting would be to invite the researchers to the factory floor.”

“In June, we met at LA Services in Western Sydney. The company manufactures very large pressure vessels for the oil and gas sector. Dr Obbard arranged for NuScale Power to Zoom in from the United States. NuScale is the first company to receive US Regulatory Approval for their Small Modular Reactors and is keen to build global supply chains,” said Sharpe.

AUKUS: The Gamechanger

These site visits generated growing interest from other manufacturers and researchers wanting to get involved in the Forum. However, the gamechanger was the announcement on 15 September 2021 of the AUKUS partnership—a trilateral security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Under the pact, the US and the UK will help Australia to acquire nuclear-powered submarines. This submarine project opens a raft of new possibilities for manufacturers to consider pathways into the nuclear industry with such things as reactor design, build, and more.

There are now approximately 40 organisations involved in the Nuclear Skills Forum, including international members who are already working together to create global supply chains. Just some of the organisations involved include NH Micro, Leussink, Omni Tanker, LA Services, Technofast Industries, Nepean Power, Turner & Townsend, ANSTO, the Industry Capability Network and Rolls Royce.

The Nuclear Skills Forum recently met online and was joined by Rolls-Royce zooming in from the United Kingdom. Rolls-Royce has a wealth of world-class nuclear capability as it has been designing, manufacturing, and supporting in operation small nuclear propulsion plants for the UK’s submarine fleet for over six decades. This capability is now being brought to civil applications with the creation of Rolls-Royce SMR. This program recently secured funding of over $900 million, which will be used to bring its plant to market. Each of Rolls-Royce’s plants will produce constant amounts of carbon-free electricity at $75 / MWh for over 60 years. They will use an international supply chain and they are expected to be rolled out globally in support of the fight against climate change.

Boris Johnson is backing a new generation of nuclear reactors as Britain finds itself in the grip of an energy crisis, and UK Ministers are understood to have adopted a ‘change of focus’ towards nuclear power, which the Prime Minister sees as essential to the government achieving its 2050 net zero targets. The British Prime Minister has asked for bids to build 16 Small Modular Reactors across the UK. 

According to Gary Wilson (Research and Technology Manager – Defence, Rolls-Royce), “Rolls-Royce Power Systems in Germany has had some initial discussions with Omni Tanker in Australia to consider how its tanker technology could be used to support fuel cell power systems on land and at sea. While it is early days, these discussions demonstrate the value of the Forum.”

Further Information

The next meeting of the Nuclear Skills Forum is on Tuesday 15 March 2022 at Eilbeck Heavy Machining. With over 110 years of industry experience, Eilbeck boasts one of the latest fabrication facilities in the country, which is ideally suited for defence opportunities. Register for the event via the AMGC website.

For further information, or to get involved in the Nuclear Skills Forum: