In the media

The need for bold, brave leaders in nuclear energy

By Julianne Antrobus

Nuclear Future

29 February 2024

The UK government has set an ambition of up to 24 GW of nuclear capacity by 2050 as part of its energy security strategy, making it clear that nuclear energy generation and decommissioning can and will play a significant role in decarbonisation of the UK’s energy system. It is now in the hands of Great British Nuclear and the sector as a whole to deliver – and to prove it can be trusted to do more.

There has never been a more important time for nuclear leaders to coalesce around a compelling purpose and be clear on the role nuclear will play in a net zero world. With this context in mind, there is an opportunity to reimagine the future of nuclear, to attract, retain and develop the best skills needed for the future. Realising these ambitious goals requires individuals to lead with a positive difference: to be bolder, braver and to embrace a new way to drive the best results.

Net zero ambitions have brought a sense of urgency to industry-wide improvement, but in recent research undertaken by PA Consulting, it was found that many nuclear leaders come up against significant barriers when trying to embrace a new way to lead. Why that is, and how it can be resolved, could become a key factor in how successful the next era of the industry becomes.

Prominent and progressive

So far, the industry has communicated its ability to technically contribute to net zero but in some cases – certainly from an outward perspective – question marks remain over its drive and ambition to achieve that contribution. The sector has traditionally been perceived as compliance-minded, conservative and inward-looking, and that perception has often held it back.

The focus on safety is understandable – and has delivered results – but for too long, this has come at the expense of progress. Safety and security must remain the foremost factors, of course, but the industry is hampered by safety being seen as a performance factor, rather than a hygiene factor. Other safety-driven industry cultures – such as oil and gas or aviation – have managed to deliver safety and improved performance. Aircraft manufacturers do not market their planes on the basis they will stay in the air – that is a given. They focus on the performance features, because that is what differentiates them from their competitors.

Modern technologies and practices have enabled nuclear to deliver a safety culture that is second to none, so it is time for the sector to recognise that high performance and high compliance are not competing forces, they are very much complementary. Leaders need to be able to balance this tension to maximise future opportunities.

Reinforcing nuclear purpose

Whether an organisation is involved in decommissioning or newbuild, the central purpose of the UK nuclear industry is to support the achievement of net zero by 2050. Despite this unifying purpose, the research undertaken revealed that half of respondents feel leaders prioritise engineering and technical considerations over enhanced leadership skills. This lack of leadership can demotivate teams and paralyse the pursuit of purpose.

Regardless of sector, the highest performing organisations are those where people are emotionally connected to a clear, consistent and compelling purpose. A deep and meaningful connection to purpose creates intrinsic motivation to perform and deliver, innovate and experiment, and take personal responsibility to continually learn, improve and develop. Leadership has a powerful role to play here. By moving from ‘command and control’ to ‘sense and respond’, leaders can liberate their teams and help them to personally connect to purpose at both an individual and organisational level.

Breakthrough innovation

Meeting the 2050 net zero deadline means the nuclear industry needs to move quickly. However, it is 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…but they have become restrictive and that does not need to be the case. To incubate breakthrough ideas that increase value, leaders are required to make hypotheses and invest in pilot programmes to test new ideas. By working in the ‘growth zone’, leaders can think beyond the comfort zone and move beyond silos as a business and sector. The power lies in thinking big – then starting small and scaling fast.

Human progress has long been forged from friction and the collision of opposing demands, yet almost every leader – and every organisation – can relate to the lure of the comfort zone. The call to accept the status quo and continue eking out an existence based on what is known and established is often the preferred approach, because it is the one with less challenge.

However, just as the tightrope walker requires a tight rope, so employees need an element of tension to make progress. Leaders must tread carefully here. This is not manufactured stress; this is a way of guiding people towards opportunities for greater personal progression that will collectively advance the organisation and the sector.

There are simple ways to do this. One is to get people who would not otherwise collaborate working together on tasks – for example, the research and development department partnering with finance or administration working with marketing. This can cultivate new ideas and ways of thinking, build connections across the business and break down silos. Bringing a wider variety of stakeholders into any development or changing processes early helps create connections across the business and brings people along on the journey, so they understand the solution and are invested in its success.

Collaborating differently

To achieve nuclear’s potential to bring about wider decarbonisation, collaboration is critical. The research showed that collaboration flourishes by breaking down siloes, favouring flexibility and strengthening relationships. This needs to happen not only within the nuclear industry but also across the wider energy sector, and nuclear leaders need to become used to casting their net widely.

Just like other industries can learn from techniques and approaches used across nuclear, so too can the nuclear industry’s leaders learn from other industries – and inspiration can be sought in the most surprising of places. Leadership today calls for an appreciation of phenomena beyond your own walls – for example, materials from decommissioning activities in nuclear are incredibly valuable in other industries, including in medicine, wind farms, agriculture, manufacturing and infrastructure.

Implementing large-scale circular economy at an impactful level requires, for example, the nuclear decommissioning industry to engage with other industries, including transport, renewables, oil and gas and healthcare, to unlock the value from commoditised waste materials. Think of major infrastructure projects such as Crossrail and how the volumes of concrete and rebar from decommissioning of nuclear facilities could be used in the building of future infrastructure and transport projects – partnerships between the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) and Highways England, Network Rail or even National Highways could be very impactful indeed.

The value of collaboration both ‘vertically’ – with closer, more interdependent relationships between tiers in the supply chain – and ‘horizontally’ – with collaboration across the sector – is well known, and while factors external to the industry such as a clearer demand signal from Government will undoubtedly enable and accelerate collaboration, there is already a lot that organisations can do to increase collaboration and release the potential across the industry.

Leaders need to build performance tension by creating stretching goals that call for collaborative and innovative solutions that cannot be achieved by silo working and simply following existing ways of working. This can be applied in a number of ways, including:

  • Assessing where individual or team goals, rewards and/or incentives encourage silo working and inadvertently create inefficiencies at organisational boundaries and remove these incentives, replacing them with rewards for the achievement of collaborative team goals
  • Enhancing existing project-based improvement and continuous improvement processes with structured routines that give teams time to review how well they are collaborating and innovating, then generate and trial ideas that help improve these behaviours
  • Equipping leaders and managers with practical resources and facilitation skills to help teams surface and trial innovative ideas and collaborate across traditional organisational boundaries to achieve higher-level goals
  • Capturing and recognising successful ideas that result in more collaboration and innovation, as well as recognising the team and individuals who made them happen – an increasing variety of collaboration technology tools are available to help with this.

Activation inclusion

Inclusivity feeds innovation, supporting the creation of diverse teams that solve stubborn problems with fresh perspectives and imagination. Inclusion in the workplace goes beyond breaking down cliques and having a more demographically diverse workforce – although clearly those things are important. A truly inclusive workforce has, and welcomes, a spectrum of thoughts and opinions – all of which are equally valued and listened to.

The rapid embodiment of greater diversity in the workplace is now giving leaders in nuclear an opportunity to truly expand the knowledge and skills of their teams and to catalyse the internal disruptors in organisations by inviting new and varied voices into the room, right up to board level.

With diverse thought that is fully included in the DNA of an organisation, there comes the potential for true innovation and real growth. Research conversations across the sector have highlighted that engineering thinking and nuclear-specific knowledge has long been the yardstick by which the importance of individuals’ contribution is judged. Leaders spoke of a mindset of ‘knowledge is power’ – rather than insight, applied in the right way, being most powerful. Clearly, deep domain knowledge plays an essential role in the success of nuclear organisations, but it becomes a limiting factor if it exists to the exclusion of diverse thought and the challenge that this brings.

This ‘intellectual snobbery’ can – and often does – preclude collaboration, stifling creative thought, innovation and the pace of delivery. To activate inclusion, leaders can:

  • Consider and insist on inclusion at all levels of an organisation, from the leadership team to employees and supply chain partners
  • Build inclusion into processes for attracting, recruiting, onboarding and integrating into the organisation and for assessing how to remain attractive and retain employees and supply chain partners
  • Use AI to interrogate your policies and people processes and identify where there is bias in language and application
  • Work with inclusion and HR specialists to debias, involving your stakeholders, which may include trade unions
  • Support sabbaticals or secondments of staff into and out of organisations to share learning  and continuously create an environment of divergent thinking
  • Build diverse teams, combining different backgrounds and perspectives to create dissonance – a creative environment where no one is afraid to bring a new viewpoint or challenge.

The move beyond the Covid-19 pandemic into different ways of working, coupled with the momentum currently behind nuclear and the demands being placed upon it, means there has never been a better time – nor a more crucial time – for leaders in nuclear to review their current approach and set a clear future leadership style for the road ahead.

Many leaders may already feel like they are nurturing growth, empowering teams, building an evolving organisation and seeking inspiration in surprising places – but those who are not should open their minds to new opportunities and for those who are already doing so, there is always opportunity to do more.

Positive change starts with a shift in mindset – however small that might be – then filters into action. Leaders grow and develop by being more open to new ideas and while there is no one right answer to solve all of the challenges nuclear leaders are facing on a day-to-day basis, by re-evaluating, reviewing and, where necessary, adopting changes to core strategies, this is the time when great leadership can help organisations take advantage of new opportunities that will make them thrive.


With the right leadership, innovation, and with commitment across the supply chain, nuclear will play a pivotal role to play in our carbon-neutral future.

The Connection Imperative

How to make the UK nuclear industry pivotal to net zero and beyond

Explore more

Contact the team

We look forward to hearing from you.

Get actionable insight straight to your inbox via our monthly newsletter.