To achieve net zero ambitions, nuclear energy needs bold, brave leaders

By Matt Leedham, Julianne Antrobus

The nuclear energy industry has a key role to play in achieving decarbonisation and net zero goals.

Following the UK Parliament’s Nuclear Week 2023, it’s worth reflecting on the big strides taken last year to drive nuclear development, such as the launch of Great British Nuclear and the government backing for the country’s Sizewell C nuclear plant in Suffolk.

Now, leaders are focusing on critical strategic objectives, including the delivery of 24GW of nuclear capacity by 2050 – key to achieving net zero. Realising these ambitious goals requires bold, brave leaders. However, our research into evolving leadership behaviours found that many leaders come up against significant barriers when trying to embrace a new way to lead. In our nuclear industry-specific research, over half of respondents say leaders don’t model the behaviours needed to create a culture of delivery, pace, and collaboration.

Here, we explore four key leadership themes that will ensure leaders guide their teams effectively, and ultimately achieve the sector’s ambitious goals.

Reinforcing nuclear’s purpose

In our recent leadership research, ‘nurturing human optimism’ and ‘empowering teams to innovate’ emerged as the two highest ranking leadership behaviours. Purpose is fundamental to both. The most successful leaders lead with a purpose that everyone can connect with, inspiring teams to meet clearly defined goals through creative thinking.

Whether your organisation is in decommissioning or new build, the central purpose of the UK nuclear industry is clear: support the achievement of net zero by 2050. Despite this unifying purpose, our deep dive into cultural change in the nuclear industry found that half of respondents say leaders prioritise engineering and technical considerations over enhanced leadership skills. This lack of leadership can demotivate teams and paralyse the pursuit of purpose.

To inspire and energise your people, communicate your purpose and your plan to achieve it throughout your organisation, and make sure colleagues understand how their role contributes. Align your organisational purpose to net zero and adapt key performance indicators so your teams have visibility of progress and achievements. Celebrate behaviours as well as outcomes, encouraging best practice. In our recent work with Scandinavian energy company Ørsted, we helped the organisation to guided cultural change, building capabilities and strengthening processes to enable and support the transition to green energy.

Driving breakthrough innovation to maximise potential

Meeting the 2050 net zero deadline means the nuclear industry needs to move quickly. However, it’s important to remember that decarbonisation is just one driver of many – think mounting energy costs, constrained investment budgets, global supply chain issues, and the loss of key skills through the ‘Great Retirement’.

The nuclear industry has, until recently, favoured incremental improvements due to concerns around technological maturity and safety. These are important considerations, until they become restrictive. To incubate breakthrough ideas that increase value – and do more with less – leaders are required to take risks, make hypotheses, and invest in pilot programmes to test new ideas. They need to empower teams to come forward with new and innovative solutions and be open to new ways of working. For example, in our work with Sellafield, a multi-function nuclear site, we guided the deployment of Artificial Intelligence (AI) systems to reduce the administrative burden by 90 per cent, ultimately allowing teams to focus on breakthrough ideas.

Collaborating differently to drive new value

Every sector is an ecosystem, with a multitude of players integrating and interacting at different stages of the value chain. The nuclear industry is no exception – but these interactions have a monumental impact on the state of the world. Nuclear has the potential to realise net zero goals, bring about wider decarbonisation, and eliminate reliance on fossil fuels. To do this, collaboration is critical.

We know, from our research into leadership behaviours, that collaboration flourishes by breaking down siloes, favouring flexibility, and strengthening relationships. This needs to happen both within the nuclear industry and the wider energy sector. To really push the boundaries, however, leaders should cast a wider net. How can you learn from leaders in other industries, and seek inspiration in surprising places (both within the industry and outside)? Can you, for instance, set up win-win relationships with industrial customers to create new business models? Can you harness the aspirations of local communities to drive social value through projects, and answer critical questions? The more partners you have, the more answers you’ll get.

Activating inclusion to see problems differently

Inclusivity feeds innovation, supporting the creation of diverse teams that solve stubborn problems with fresh perspectives and imagination. The more inclusive – and therefore diverse – your team is, the richer its ideas will be, and the better it will become at identifying creative solutions. Take nuclear waste. What if spent nuclear fuel was considered not just as ‘waste’, but as a valuable material containing elements that can be extracted and re-used elsewhere as part of a circular economy?

Despite the importance of inclusivity, the UK’s nuclear workforce has a diversity dilemma – just 20 percent of employees are female and, as in the vast majority of industries, the representation of ethnic minorities leaves much room for improvement. To increase team potential, leaders can take tangible steps not only to improve inclusion and diversity, but to empower team members to speak up and share ideas. Harnessing the energy and enthusiasm of internal disruptors will make this all the more effective.

In the nuclear industry, only bold, visionary leaders will realise the decarbonisation opportunity. Net zero ambitions have brought a sense of urgency to industry-wide improvement, providing a raison d’être for teams to move further, faster. Although safety concerns and technical complexities will remain, by adopting a mindset of bold leadership, nuclear industry leaders can charge their culture with purpose, and spark success.

About the authors

Matt Leedham PA nuclear expert
Julianne Antrobus PA nuclear expert

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