The nuclear industry is a vital part of the northern economy, but recent events have cast a shadow over its future.
The vote by Cumbria County Council to reject deep storage of nuclear waste and the decision of Centrica to abandon plans to build new reactors in the UK raises major questions for an industry that the North has great expertise in.
From the hi tech skills being taught at UCLAN and Manchester University’s Dalton Institute to the “difficult” end of dealing with the waste legacy at Sellafield, from the uranium enrichment plant run by URENCO at Capenhurst to a string of supply chain companies across the North, we are looking at a major industrial asset.
There are two major issues. The need to build a new generation of nuclear power stations to avoid a UK energy gap in the 2020s and a solution to the long term disposal of radioactive waste.
On the latter issue, the government’s reaction to the decision by Cumbria Council to pull out of the exploration of underground sites seemed remarkably casual. Ministerial reaction was to say the search goes on as if there are a queue of other local authorities across England waiting to host the toxic legacy of 60 years of nuclear power generation.
The fact is that Cumbria is the only county in the country where there is the remotest prospect of building a consensus to locate a deep storage facility for nuclear waste. Actually that conclusion needs refining. It is only in West Cumbria, around Sellafield, that there may be public support. Copeland District Council voted to continue exploration and there is talk of them now going it alone.
It would require a change in the law as Cumbria County Council is the superior planning authority, but in the national interest this should be explored.
Cumbria councillors are facing elections in a couple of months. That brought its own pressures, along with a strategy by some anti nuclear campaigners to “scare the crap out of them”. But the vote still leaves the nuclear waste in place.
Now the government should concentrate on exploring for a site in West Cumbria so that this part of the work of the nuclear industry in the north can regain momentum and they should give Copeland Council the guarantee that they could pull out of the project at a late stage. Cumbria councillors claim they were not reassured on this point.
Now we come to the other issue which has implications across the economy of the north. After years of burying its head in the sand the Blair government acknowledged that we would need a new generation of nuclear power stations. This was good news for the North and Manchester University was quick to spot the opportunity to start training a new generation of nuclear engineers.
But forward momentum has been slow, partly because of the balance of risk to be taken by the private and public sector and the agreed price for electricity generation from the power stations.
Centrica’s decision to withdraw means no major UK company remains involved in plans for new nuclear reactors in England. The government point to Hitachi’s purchase of the relatively new UK nuclear power company, Horizon, as evidence of confidence in the UK nuclear industry by the Japanese.
For the sake of jobs in the north, we need rapid progress on plans for nuclear power stations and deep storage.