UP TO 140 new jobs are to be created at Culham nuclear research centre in south Oxfordshire.

Recruitment has already started for jobs with the UK Atomic Energy Authority, which operates the giant Jet European nuclear fusion project, as well as the UK’s fusion machine Mast.

A 14-month shutdown to replace part of the Jet machine means 70 temporary blue-collar jobs.

These electricians, mechanical fitters and mates will be recruited through contractors Morsons.

Another 20 or so technicians are needed for the upgrade work by contractors Rullion.

There are also 29 permanent vacancies for chartered engineers, plus another 20 for qualifications ranging from a PhD to electrical technician status.

They will be on permanent contracts, although Jet — the biggest nuclear fusion project in the world — is due to close some time after 2014, when the work will transfer to another international project called Iter in France.

Engineering department manager David Martin hopes this year’s recruitment will be easier than usual — Britain has a long-standing shortage of engineers.

But he says applicants don’t need nuclear experience.

He said: “Anyone who has worked on Formula 1 teams or in the petro-chemical or pharmaceutical industry could be trained in a few months.”

The Jet shutdown will allow testing of a new material for Iter, now being built in the south of France.

Iter is intended to be the penultimate step towards a nuclear fusion power station, producing limitless energy without the need for fossil fuels.

Supporters of fusion say it is clean, cheap and safer than nuclear fission, which is used in current nuclear power stations.

But it has taken far longer than expected to perfect the techniques needed to release the energy that powers the sun, stars — and the H-bomb.

The Jet machine heats and squeezes a gas so hot that the electrons are stripped away from the atomic nuclei to form a lively and difficult-to-control sub-atomic soup known as a plasma.

Some of Jet’s 400-500 staff will gradually move to Iter from 2010, with others transferring to the UK fusion research programme, which employs 150 people at Culham.

But no one knows what will happen to the rest of the workforce.

When Jet arrived at Culham in 1983, bringing international prestige and hundreds of jobs, the European Commission agreed to restore the site after the project finished.

Public consultation about the future use of the site last summer showed 70 per cent of respondents wanting to see the Jet experimental facilities kept, with less than 10 per cent in favour of removing the buildings and returning the site to farmland.

Spokesman Nick Holloway said: “The feeling is that some kind of scientific research will continue on the site.”