Radiation Protection: University is cool, but not the be all, and end all!
Published: Apr 03, 2023
I say to my sons – do not rush into university. Do so right now if you want to, but do not feel pressurised. I left sixth form in 1989 with 8 good O-levels (now GCSE) and 3 poor A-levels (maths, physics and chemistry). At 18 in 1989 I felt I had failed. Most of my mates were then off to university. Despite poor grades I got an offer to read Chemistry at Sheffield but declined. So I needed to enter the workplace.
First Job - RHM (High Wycombe)
My first job was as a laboratory assistant at RHM in High Wycombe. This company made bread (and were investigating Micro Protein that would later become Quorn).
I worked as best I could, and even started an HNC in Biology on day release at Slough College, but it was not to be. One year after starting I was made redundant at 19! I recall at the time I was offered £800 and as a 19 year old thought that was pretty good! I went out and purchased some “serious” HiFi.
Amersham International - the radiation protection flame is ignited (1990)
I have my mum to thank next. She had seen an advert in the local newspaper for an Environmental Technician at Amersham International (now GE HealthCare). I got this job and started as an environmental surveyor - looking at radiation safety in the workplace. I enjoyed this role very much and got to work with my peers and also those at the professional level (you know who you are - Rob!).
The above picture shows Amersham International in GE times and undergoing some level of decommissioning. However, this must be quite early on as I note Building 9 (bottom right) remains as does much of the "A buildings" above building 9 which were the oldest parts of the site. The yellow arrow is the approximate location of my office which I shared with colleagues during 1990-1992, and then at various times between 1992-1995 (see why below).
Not surprisingly much of the job involved using a radiation monitor. I was working a 0600-1400 or 1400-2200 shift and the first hour of the early morning shift involved surveying work areas for contractors who were due in to start work at 0800. The work areas could include laboratory space, plantrooms, effluent treatment systems, the site tunnel system or the TMC (Tank Management Centre). At 0800 the contractors would arrive in the site office and PTW (permit to works) would be prepared. The rest of the shift was general coverage, incident response, monitoring specific jobs (such as the movement of cyclotron targets from Building 27 to Building 20 and so on). Also got involved in some early decommissioning preparation work as the "A Area tanks" were to be removed.
Nearly two years into the job I was talking to a colleague who said they were going to leave their job and go back to university. I was interested in what they were planning and also realised that I might need to do the same if I was ever to be a Radiation Protection Adviser (RPA). Although I had not set my sights (yet) on the role of a RPA, I was readily understanding that I needed extra qualifications if I were to move on.
The University of Nottingham (1992-1995)
In 1992, aged 21 years, I become a mature student and started a course at Nottingham University reading “Environmental Engineering and Resource Management”. The decision to make the change after working for 3 years was daunting, but also exciting. I know it caused a little issue with Amersham as in total 3 colleagues including myself left the company at the same time in 1992 to attend university, two of us taking the same course.
Attending university at 21 was an eye opener, but I treated it much like a full time job rather than a rite of passage (which might have been the case if I had attended at 18). Even to this day, one thing that stands out is that whilst I would be in the lecture room at 0955 for a 1000 lecture, I was amazed how other students would appear in various "states" over the next half hour - this was nothing like the discipline I had learned at work!
During this time I went back to Amersham for Easter and Summer breaks. The best work placement you could ever wish for, earning money working in your area of interest. I am really very grateful to Amersham for accommodating me during this period.
I worked my socks of and in 1995 gained a 1st class hons degree. During the Easter break before the final exams in 1995 I learned via a phone call that I had been awarded a place on the Aldermaston (AWE) Health Physics training scheme. It was actually a conditional offer, not so much on passing my degree, but gaining positive vetting (DV) security clearance. I did, and started the next part of my radiation protection career, this time as a graduate.
AWE Aldermaston (Atomic Weapons Establishment)
In 1995 I become a graduate trainee on the MoD health physics trainee scheme at AWE Aldermaston. This was pretty good work experience over two years, although I do not think they appreciated the skills I had obtained from Amersham. Soon after starting the scheme, and in full knowledge that I had 2 years relevant practical work experience behind me, I was told by a young and friendly BHP (Building Health Physicist), "you don't need to go and work with the surveyors and visit the plant, you have done all that already, let's get down to looking at a safety case !". A safety case is all well and good, but I wanted to get stuck in and understand what was going on in the work area. This attitude to 'paperwork' rather than 'go and see the job' was quite endemic amongst the relatively newly qualified gradute health physics staff, and I soon learned that many of them had been through the same MoD graduate training scheme (but without previous work experience in this field). My eyes were quickly opened to an apparent assumption that 'monitoring for radiation and contamination is easy'. Furthermore, I got the impression from some that picking up a radiation or contamination monitor was beneath them!
So here I was a graduate, but not allowed to practice what I had learned at Amersham International a few years earlier.
Big mistake employers ! The radiation surveyor is the data collector. Without good valid data you have nothing to work with!
To this day I really appreciate the practical skills from Amersham and wonder if, at the higher graduate level, some believe that working 'at the coal face' is not that important. Sorry it is, and this realisation is what has helped me become the RPA I am today.
AWE did allow me to take an MSc in Radiation & Environmental Protection at Surrey University on a day release (one day a week) over a two year period. The higher degree was nice to have and added some technical detail to support the more practical elements of radiation protection.
Towards the end of the two year training scheme it appeared there was a push for AWE to deal with environmental issues and there were no specific health physics posts available. This deeply troubled me - having all that practical experience from Amersham, having given up three years of potential work to do a degree, and then finishing a training scheme at AWE with a radiation protection related MSc, I wanted to do health physics, I wanted to work towards being an RPA. And so I had to look outside AWE and see what was now available to me.
Radiation Protection Officer (RPO) and RPA at Imperial College London (1998-2005)
Looking in New Scientist I discovered a Job offer - Radiation Protection Officer (RPO) for Imperial College London. I went for the interview and was offered the job the same day. I recall my future manager, Margaret Minski, offering me the role over the phone and stating even before I had the job that this was the path to being an RPA as she would be retiring in a couple of years. This two year segment of my career was around the change over from IRR85 to IRR99 where the RPA role would be certificated for the first time, so an ideal time to seek formal RPA status.
[Margaret Minski is instrumental to my success so far. Sadly she is no longer with us - please visit this blog link if you are interested 'Margaret J Minski – my boss, my colleague and family friend (1937-2019)'.
On my leaving day at AWE some of my peers were saying words to the effect of “oh, you join the easy life, simple sources and low radiological hazards”. It did not take me that long to realise what nonsense they were spouting, as I got stuck into a working with a nuclear research reactor, a Mega Ampere Generator for Plasma Implosion Experiments (Magpie), unsealed radionuclides and much more. H-3, Pu-239, U-235 and x-rays at AWE certainly have their place, but seeing the bigger wider picture is just as valuable. This has stuck with me to the present day - I may not have full knowledge in any one area of ionising radiation use, but my career with Ionactive has taken me to possibly more diverse set of workplaces than you average RPA could hope for. Nothing wrong with long term employment in a familiar area of course, that is likely to make you an expert in your field!
Imperial College was the best experience I could have hoped for. The degree helped me to get to this point, but the practical experience was still invaluable.
Ionactive Consulting Limited (2002 - )
In 2002 Ionactive was inspired by an RPA job offer at a local museum near the college. I was asked if I could be their RPA on a contract basis. I spoke to my manager and the college, and was basically told, absolutely fine as long as the work you do is conducted out of college time and is completely separated from your day job. This is quite unusual as most employees I think would saya firm "no!". However, the college acknowledged that the academic system encouraged their experts to go out and seek external appointments and whilst I was no academic (or expert), this philosophy allowed Ionactive to grow at a modest steady rate.
I recall spending the evening trying to dream up a company name for this new venture and writing down words on a scrap of paper. Ionising radiation - radioactive material.. and so on. This became IonActive (the capital "A" was dropped after a few years and we are now simply Ionactive Consulting Limited).
Between 2002 and 2005 we picked up a number of clients including the first non-UK work. I recall a quite bizarre job where I flew to Qatar in the Gulf one Saturday morning, arrived Saturday evening in time for a meal and bed, visited Qatar Steel on the Sunday, finished off with a meal Sunday evening, flew back to the UK over Sunday night, and was in my Imperial College office at 0730 Monday morning, just in time to meet my boss. My boss said, "how was your weekend", I responded "pretty good, just a quick trip to the Middle East to offer some RPA advice". It was the talk of the office that day :) I could not, and would not do that now, too old !
Early in 2005 I made a decision to make Ionactive full time. This involved all the family in discussion since we had a 2 year old son and this new journey felt risky but exciting. Unfortunately my leaving day at Imperial was July 7, 2005 and as you might expect, we never made it to the leaving lunch.
On a more positive note, Ionactive was offered a contract RPA position for Imperial College and a separate contract for the Reactor Centre. This, together with all the other clients thus far meant that Ionactive had a very positive start. This was in place for about 2 years (for the college) and up to mid 2021 for the reactor (which is now fully decommissioned and delicenced).
And here we are 20+ years later. Regrets? No. Hard work? Certainly! Would I have it any other way – no!
University is great, and I went at 21, but it is not the only way to progress. For me a mixture of real work experience and post 18 education was key. All I am saying to my sons, and anyone else what wants to listen, is that the decisions you make at 18 are not life changing or life affirming. You have plenty of time ahead to decide what you want to do.
Thanks for reading (if you have got to the end).