Sam tells us about the huge advancements being made in the world of nuclear power and how graduates who think outside the box can make a big impact in the sector.
Why did you choose a career in engineering?
I have always been interested in making things, and solving problems, which is what engineering is all about. Mechanical engineering is the most general – it covers solids, fluids, materials, design and manufacturing and I wanted to keep my options open.
Did you join a formal graduate scheme when you finished university?
Yes. UKAEA recruit graduates directly into permanent roles, rather than into a pool, but we used to get together for basic training courses. Any scheme will give you only as much as you are prepared to ask for. It is your excuse to demand broader work experience than you might get otherwise, and ensure your skills are properly rounded. The same applies to the monitored professional development schemes of the engineering institutions.
What are the advantages of working at UKAEA?
They operate the only large-scale fusion experiments in the UK. Fusion research is globally collaborative. We host JET, the biggest fusion experiment in the world, on behalf of the EU and we’re a partner in the global team constructing the next big machine in France.
What is a typical day like for you?
At the moment I have some very varied projects. We are planning a big upgrade to MAST, the UK’s own fusion experiment. I’m doing a lot of work on magnets and all of the associated cooling and support structures, really pushing the performance.
We’re quite a small team so one morning I’ll be doing detailed thermal or stress analysis of a coil and the next I’ll be ordering valves and writing installation plans. I’m also running a project to introduce PLM software for our design office. At the moment a lot of my time is in the office but I like getting my hands on actual hardware whenever possible, when things are being made or I’m testing them.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
The best moments are when I solve a problem – when I’m able to see through the ‘noise’ to determine the best way forward for a project or a design.
What’s the most challenging part of the job?
Fusion is still a long way from producing profitable power. It can be very frustrating being dependent on a trickle of government funding, which really holds back our progress.
Climate change and renewable energy are big topics of discussion at the moment. How does your job impact on these issues?
Nuclear fusion is the ‘holy grail’ of energy research. Fusion power is inherently safe, free from greenhouse gases and long lived waste, and uses fuel that is available almost anywhere. If we can roll it out on a commercial basis the world will never be the same again.
What has been the proudest moment in your career so far?
Last year was a good one, because I had a couple of interesting manufacturing contracts finish. One experimental coil in particular had almost everything go wrong that could have gone wrong. I was so pleased when I could finally sign it off! I also qualified as a Chartered engineer.
Do you have any advice for graduates wanting to get into the energy industry?
I always thought energy would be a growth area, with a lot of new technology and where I could make a big contribution, and that is getting truer every day. There should be a lot of opportunities now as we enter a nuclear renaissance, renewables kick off and efficiency and performance are stretched across the board.
What qualities do you need to succeed in your sector?
Patience! We could do with a lot of fresh entrepreneurs who can think outside the constraints that people have grown used to.
What’s the biggest myth about working in nuclear power?
Probably that it’s dangerous. In past decades people were scared of everything nuclear, but I hope we’ve grown out of that now.
What lessons have you learned since graduation?
In lectures you are not taught how things are done in industry. You are taught how things should be done.