Case study 11

Culham Centre for Fusion Energy

Picture of the Joint European Torus (JET)

New Migration Advisory Committee salary thresholds could see the UK’s Culham Centre for Fusion Energy lose essential expertise, as shown by the case of one power engineer based there.

The Culham Centre for Fusion Energy (CCFE) is the UK’s national laboratory for fusion research. The potential of fusion power as a safe, clean, and virtually limitless energy source for future generations has never been more important.

The UK fusion programme is centred on the Mega Amp Spherical Tokamak (MAST) experiment and the Joint European Torus (JET) – the world’s largest magnetic fusion experiment.

JET is the largest Tokamak in the world and the only operational fusion experiment capable of working with tritium, the fuel necessary for fusion energy.
As a joint venture, JET is quintessentially European – more than 40 laboratories and more than 350 scientists and engineers from all over Europe currently contribute to the JET programme, which is funded by the European Commission.

Through this work, staff at CCFE make a significant contribution to developing the international nuclear fusion project (ITER), which is designed to deliver ten times more power than it consumes by 2050.

The experimental results and design studies performed by JET are consolidated into the international nuclear fusion project design.

To a large extent, JET keeps people trained in Tokamak operation and is currently the only facility in the world for treating fuel.

Prospect spoke to an Australian power engineer working at CCFE courtesy of a resident’s permit provided by his Latvian wife, who is a European Economic Area citizen.

The engineer’s wife, also an engineering professional, earns just over the salary threshold required for sponsorship, but this could be impacted by changes in the threshold recommended by the Migration Advisory Committee.

Although power engineering qualifies as a shortage occupation, the process of obtaining a visa from the Home Office was problematic and drawn out.

Yet both the engineer and his employer perceived it as a better option than the even more complex alternative of seeking a sponsorship visa through the Australian government. The engineer has worked at CCFE for two years – a long way short of the five years required for permanent residency.
He works in a small team responsible for maintaining, developing and operating the machinery and power supply that the physicists need to undertake research.

The hardware is custom-engineered in Europe and continuous liaison with the European manufacturers to replace parts and keep the machinery running is required. It needs expertise and significant experience to ensure an effective and smooth intelligent customer relationship.

This engineer’s manager brought his case to Prospect’s attention because he is conscious of how difficult he will be to replace and is fearful of losing his knowledge and skills.

The engineer himself would like to continue working at CCFE, which he regards as a flagship of UK science, but faces an uncertain future.

Sadly, this uncertainty is far from unique among a richly-talented international workforce.