Working in nuclear: an interview

Ever wondered what is actually involved when working in nuclear? We caught up with Laura Leith, Accredited Health Physicist, at EDF Energy Heysham 1 Power Station. 

On a day-to-day basis, Laura’s role is to keep personnel safe from the effects of radiation and contamination. One of the main goals is to keep doses as low as reasonably practicable ‘ALARP’ and in line with guidance and regulations.

We wanted to know a bit more about Laura’s role, what drew her to the position and what she gets up to on an average day. 


What drew you to this job?

I was very fortunate that as part of my degree I was able to do an Industrial Placement year, also known as a ‘Year in Industry’. When I decided to do this year out; I have to say that I wasn’t sure which direction my career was going to go down or even what I wanted to do! It was only as part of my research into placement years that I came across the opportunities within EDF Energy to work for a year at a nuclear power station. I thought that it seemed like a really interesting opportunity so I applied and was fortunate to be offered a year at Heysham 1 Power Station. The placement year led to me getting a position on the EDF Graduate Scheme once I had finished my degree and then this position came along. I was fortunate after my placement year that I knew what the job entailed and that I would really enjoy it and I haven’t looked back since!


What did you study at university that led you into this role? 

My degree was in Natural Sciences (physics, chemistry and maths) and I knew that I wanted to use my degree in my future job. I always preferred physics and so this is what led me to looking at placement years that involved physics but weren’t lab based. I was fortunate that the EDF Placement years ticked a lot of boxes of what I was looking for and with the added bonus that two of their nuclear sites are fairly close to where I grew up; so I could live at home and stay within close proximity to the Lake District (which I regularly go to).


Did you always know you wanted to do this? ​

I would love to say my career has gone to plan but before I started working with EDF Energy I had no idea what I wanted to do; I was even considering being a dentist! However, once I started working here; I knew this was the career for me.


What does an average day for you look like?

An average day can be very varied. It normally consists of some office work and some time out on plant and inside the reactor building. If it’s particularly busy on plant then there will be more time in the coveralls than at my desk! Saying that I also get involved with Environmental Monitoring so some days can be spent collecting samples of seaweed, mussels and silt from local beaches and then bringing it all back to the lab to analyse… these days are more fun when the sun is shining!


What’s rewarding in your job?

I would say there are a lot of rewarding aspects to my job but I work with lots of different people and work groups on a daily basis and it’s really rewarding when others groups recognise the work that I have done in the background to ensure their job goes ahead smoothly and safely.


What’s challenging?

One of the most challenging aspects of my job is challenging people. At times my role will require me to coach others for safety reasons and it’s never easy approaching someone when you’ve got to point out something they’re doing wrong!


What’s the most typical questions you get when you tell people about your job? And how do you answer them?

The most typical questions I get asked about my job are what sort of job it is: do I have to wear a space suit or am I in an office and I always get asked… is it safe? I always firstly assure people that it’s safe. I wouldn’t work here if I didn’t think it was. In terms of radiation there is a fear due to the fact you can’t see it or smell it but I always like to make comparisons for the amount of radiation doses I get and something someone will understand and be familiar with. It’s very common in a month for me to have received less dose than I would get having a dental x-ray! With regard to the space suits, the answer is no and I do work at a desk. However, like I mentioned before there is lots of work undertaken in the reactor building and occasionally have to do work where we have to wear extra protective clothing or breathing apparatus.


What’s the most interesting thing you’ve worked on in the last year or so?

The most interesting project I have been involved with in the last year involved sending a 54Te contaminated motor to another station. We regularly organise and oversee consignments of radioactive material. However, this project was an unusual challenge due to the sheer size and radioactive properties. Once the logistics of how to get it secured (in a big enough box), out of the building and onto a lorry (that was also long enough to fit the box) were worked out, putting it into practise was a completely novel challenge but one I really enjoyed.


What do you think are the common misconceptions about nuclear?

I think the latest series Chernobyl has probably added slightly to the misconception that nuclear isn’t safe. In fact, I couldn’t think of a safer place to work and I am proud when I say I work at a nuclear power station. Nuclear is a vital part of the UK energy mix and normally provides approximately 20% of the UK’s energy needs so I like to think when I’m at home that 1 in 5 of my light bulbs is powered by nuclear!


What are your thoughts on nuclear’s role in helping the UK tackle climate change crisis?

I think that nuclear power is essential in helping the UK achieve its future low carbon goals. While I am obviously biased towards nuclear power, I think the growing global renewable energy market is great and very exciting (indeed from the nuclear site I work at you can look out to sea and see the world's largest offshore wind farm). However, I believe that it's important to have a good energy mix in the UK and nuclear should be part of this. Currently the UK (EDF Energy) has 15 reactors which generate approximately 20% of the UK’s electricity but due to the ageing stations almost half of this capacity will retire over the next decade. I think now is the right time for a new generation of nuclear plants such as the one currently under construction at Hinkley point C in Somerset, which can be designed and operated taking into account all the previous 30+ years of safe nuclear power generation in the UK.


Could you tell me in more detail about safety? From community to workers?

With regard to safety at work, as a worker I genuinely mean it when I say I feel very safe working at this power station. All forms of safety; industrial, radiological and nuclear are taken extremely seriously and are at the forefront of everything we do and the decisions we make. There is also a culture to constantly strive and improve safety, and never be complacent. We regularly review operating experience from other EDF Energy stations and indeed other nuclear industries to help us improve. There are also regular peer reviews at the stations to help us take learning from elsewhere and it’s always interesting to learn practices of other sites worldwide in your specialism (mine being radiological protection).

We also take safety of the public and the local population very seriously. There are biannual Local Community Liaison meetings held with the stations and local councils which are always open to the public and an opportunity for anyone to ask any questions they may have.

EDF Energy also encourages getting involved in local community projects and STEM events. I have been fortunate enough to get involved with lots of school events; explaining my role, how nuclear works and hopefully promoting science careers to young people.