To many, Keith Parker has been the face of the UK nuclear industry for over a decade as Chief Executive of the Nuclear Industry Association and therefore, in choosing who to interview for the first profile in Nuclear Matters’ Nuclear People section Keith was the clear choice.
Nuclear Matters caught up with Keith at the NIA’s flagship #Nuclear – Powering the UK conference in London last month. Friendly and welcoming Keith arrives to our meeting smartly dressed in a dark business suit. He is confident and relaxed while we chat over a cup of coffee about his long-time relationship with the Nuclear Industry.
Keith’s career has been at the heart of the development of the nuclear industry for the last 35 years initially in the civil service before moving into the British Nuclear Industry Forum (BNIF) the nuclear trade association that was to become the NIA.
Speaking of his introduction to the industry Keith told us, “My first encounter with the nuclear industry was as a civil servant in the Department of Energy, when I was seconded to work on the Secretariat for the Sizewell B public inquiry on the team supporting the inquiry inspector. The inquiry started in January 1983 and ended in March 1985. Once it finished, we wrote the report which was then delivered to the Secretary of State in December 1986, so I was familiar with all the evidence for and against Sizewell B. The work was extremely interesting, although it took quite a number of years to complete.”
Keith then moved on to work on the first Hinkley Point C inquiry, which although it granted planning permission for a replica of the Sizewell B plant, the reactor was not ultimately built.
Describing his route into the industry Keith said: “I returned to the Department in 1990; I was private secretary to energy ministers who had nuclear as part of their ministerial responsibilities, that is when I really got to know people in the industry and in particular what was then known as the British Nuclear Industry Forum which later became the NIA. I left the civil service in 1995 and joined BNIF.”
Nuclear has always been a subject that inflames passions both on the pro and the anti-sides. Reflecting on this Keith says, “Initially I did not know very much about nuclear. What was interesting to me and, perhaps a bit of a surprise, was the amount of emotion that building a new nuclear power station arouses in people. There was an awful lot of opposition from major organisations, like Friends of the Earth (FoE), Greenpeace, CND local opposition groups and individuals to the proposal. Dealing with objectors was very interesting and in the Hinkley inquiry there were even more objectors than at Sizewell and it was my job to manage the programme of the inquiry, to ensure that they all got their say and that was a very challenging role.”
Keith’s time in the industry has seen huge changes, not just for the industry but also for the electricity sector as a whole. As he says, “When I first started working on the public inquiry, the company developing Sizewell B and subsequently Hinkley Point C was the CEGB, the Central Electricity Generating Board, a public sector utility organisation which dealt with all the electricity production and distribution for the country. The state was paying to build these nuclear stations [Sizewell B and potentially Hinkley Point C] through the CEGB. The biggest change has been the dismantlement of the nationalised industry through the privatisation of the energy sector that, from 1989 to the early 1990s, broke up the CEGB and created a number of smaller organisations and companies, which completely changed the landscape of the energy industry in the UK.”
Following seven years as Head of Communications at BNIF Keith became the NIA’s Chief Executive in 2003 when the organisation faced huge challenges following the Government’s White Paper earlier that year, which more or less dismissed nuclear as an option for the UK’s future energy supplies. “The biggest challenge has been to reverse the policy of no real support for nuclear energy, to where we are now in a position of building new power stations”, Keith told Nuclear Matters. “We now have a strong government commitment, cross party support and a fair degree of positive public support. This has been not only our greatest challenge but also our greatest achievement.”
Another challenge the industry has faced over the last 15 years is the ageing workforce and the need to attract young people to join it. The NIA has a strong record of work to help attract younger people to join the industry and Keith has provided a strong lead from the top on this. Many people in the industry have told us how encouraging he has been on this agenda.
Speaking about the drive to rejuvenate the industry Keith said, “We have a communications programme called re:generation which is aimed specifically at young people, particularly young women, to inform them about the opportunities in the industry and try to attract them. We work with secondary schools, we visit them and invite them to visit us. There is a big effort to attract young people as they are indeed the key to ensuring a sustainable future for the industry.”
However, following nearly 13 years at the helm Keith intends to step down in March this year. This will give the opera lover more time to enjoy his hobbies. “I enjoy walking in the countryside, particularly in Sussex where my partner lives. She and I walk a lot in the South Downs. I enjoy travelling; my job as CEO has taken me all around the world, which has been very exciting. Visiting countries like China, India and Japan, which I would not otherwise have gone to.”
His immediate plans will take him first to Italy, “I am going to take a few months off, I am going to spend two months in Italy”, he told us. “First a month in Umbria relaxing and then I am going to spend a month in Florence taking an art history and Italian language course in June. I am very much looking forward to that. The course is on Renaissance Art. I speak a bit of Italian but I am looking to improve while I am there.”
While this marks Keith’s retirement from working in the industry full time he is not stepping out completely and intends to take on some part time assignments with companies in the nuclear industry on his return from Italy.
Keith will certainly be a hard act to follow and we asked Keith if he had any advice for his successor. He said, “I think it is very important we develop the UK’s skills and capability now we have this very strong prospect for nuclear new build and then into the future small modular reactors. The NIA has a very important role to support the longer term objectives of the industry in dealing with the legacy waste and delivering new build and it needs to continue to help maintain the political support and assist with supply chain companies to develop and win work in the UK and abroad. “
Keith’s retirement marks the end of an era, but it is good news for the industry to know that his wisdom and advice will be available to it for many years to come.