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Leading-edge facilities and cross-disciplinary collaboration underpin AWE’s nuclear remit

Written by: Sponsored by AWE
Published on: 24 Jun 2024

The UK’s nuclear-defence non-departmental public body, AWE, offers diverse professional pathways to attract, develop and retain the best early-career talent in physics, mathematics and engineering

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Strength in diversity AWE’s physics programme requires a range of skillsets spanning systems assessment, design physics, radiation science and detection, material physics and enabling technologies. (Courtesy: AWE)

AWE is no ordinary physics-based business. With a specialist workforce of around 7000 employees, AWE supports the UK government’s nuclear defence strategy and Continuous At-Sea-Deterrent (nuclear-armed submarines), whilst also providing innovative technologies and know-how to support international initiatives in counter-terrorism and nuclear-threat reduction. Tracy Hart, physics business operations manager at AWE, talked to Physics World about the opportunities for theoretical and experimental physicists within the company’s core production, science, engineering and technology divisions.

Why should a talented physics graduate consider AWE as a long-term career choice?

AWE provides the focal point for research, development and support of the UK’s nuclear-weapons stockpile. Our teams work at the cutting edge of science, technology and engineering across the lifecycle of the warhead – from initial concept and design to final decommissioning and disposal. The goal: to deter the most extreme threats our nation might face, now and in the future. Within that context, we offer unique professional opportunities across a range of technical and leadership roles suitable for bright, dynamic and innovative graduates in physics, mathematics, engineering and high-performance computing.

What can early-career scientists at AWE expect in terms of training and development?

For starters, the early-career training programme is accredited by 10 professional bodies, including the Institute of Physics (IOP) and the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications (IMA). That’s because we want AWE scientists and engineers to be the best of the best, with heads of profession within the management team prioritizing development of their technical staff on an individualized basis. There are lots of opportunities for self-guided learning along the way, with our technical training modules covering an extensive programme of courses in areas like machine learning, advanced programming (e.g. Python, Java, C++) and Monte Carlo modelling. More specifically, our physicists have their IOP membership paid for by AWE, while a structured mentoring programme provides guidance along the path to CPhys chartership (a highly regarded professional validation scheme overseen by the IOP). We also prioritize external collaboration and work closely with the UK academic community – notably, the University of Oxford and Imperial College London – sponsoring PhD studentships and establishing centres of excellence for joint research.

How about long-term career progression?

There’s a can-do culture at AWE, with a lot of talented scientists and engineers more than ready – and willing – to take on additional responsibility after just a few months in situ. Fast-track development pathways are supported through fluid grading and a promotion process that enables staff to advance by developing their technical knowledge in a given specialism and/or their leadership competencies in wider management roles. It’s all about opportunity: we take a lot of time – and care – recruiting talented people, so it’s important to ensure they can access diverse career pathways across the business.

What research and technical infrastructures are available to scientists at AWE?

Our experts work with advanced experimental and modelling capabilities to keep the nation safe and secure. A case in point is the Orion Laser Facility, a critical component of AWE’s working partnerships with academia (with around 15% of its usage ring-fenced for such collaborations). The size of a football stadium, Orion enables our teams to replicate the conditions found at the heart of a nuclear explosion – ensuring the safety, reliability and performance of warheads throughout their lifecycle. This high-energy-density plasma physics capability underpins not only our weapons research, but also yields fundamental scientific insights for astrophysicists studying star formation and researchers working on nuclear fusion. There is also AWE’s high-performance computing (HPC) programme and a unique scientific computing platform on a scale that only a few companies across the UK can match. Our latest Damson supercomputer, for example, is one of the most advanced of its kind and performs 4.3 trillion calculations every second – essential for 3D modelling and simulation capabilities to support our research into the performance and reliability of nuclear warheads.

Does AWE work on nuclear non-proliferation activities?

We are home to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) National Data Centre for Seismology and Infrasound. Through the collection and analysis of data from monitoring systems all over the world, the centre works with the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) to identify potential nuclear explosions conducted by other countries. Further, the team supports the MOD and international partners in underpinning the CTBT, providing expertise on arms control verification, development of forensic monitoring techniques, as well as the capability to analyse and advise on nuclear tests.

How important is cross-disciplinary collaboration to AWE’s mission?

The multidisciplinary nature of our programme means there’s a place for domain experts – technical leaders in their specialist niche – as well as “big-picture” scientists, engineers and managers who might be equally at ease when working across a range of scientific disciplines. Ultimately, collaboration informs everything we do. A case study in this regard is The Hub, a new purpose-built facility that will, when completed, consolidate many ageing laboratories and workshops into a central campus that integrates engineering, science, learning and administrative functions.

What sorts of projects do physicists get to work on at AWE?

The physics department at AWE recruits a broad range of skillsets spanning systems assessment, design physics, radiation science and detection, material physics and enabling technologies. Among our priorities right now is to scale the talent pipeline for ongoing studies in the criticality safety group. Roles in this area are multidisciplinary, combining strong technical understanding of the nuclear physics of criticality alongside the operational know-how of writing safety assessments. Put simply, nuclear physics domain knowledge is applied to derive safe working limits and restrictions for a wide variety of operations that use fissile material across the nuclear material and facility lifecycles. These derivations regularly involve the use of nuclear data from real-world experiments and Monte Carlo computer codes. What’s more, the production of safety assessments requires an understanding of hazard identification methods and various fault analysis techniques to determine how a criticality could occur and what safety systems are required to manage that risk.

What about other recruitment priorities at AWE?

Current areas of emphasis for the HR team include the HPC programme – where we’re looking for systems administrators and applied computational scientists – and design physics – where we need candidates with a really strong physics and mathematics background plus the versatility to put that knowledge to work versus our unique requirements. Our design physics team uses state-of-the-art multiphysics codes to model hydrodynamics, radiation transport and nuclear processes plus a range of experimental data to benchmark their predictions. Operationally, that means understanding the complex physical processes associated with nuclear-weapons function, while applying those insights to current systems as well as next-generation weapons design. The key take-away: if you’re looking for a role with excitement, intrigue and something that really makes a difference, then now is the time to join AWE.

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