Could our nuclear industry become a thing of the past?
Yet it’s never been without its risks, controversies and difficulties, not to mention its image problems. And its latest difficulties could be putting thousands of hoped-for jobs and millions of pounds of expected investment in jeopardy.
Three new reactors were going to be built at Moorside by a consortium called NuGen.
They were going to provide power for six million homes, jobs for between 14,000 and 21,000 people, and 7.5 per cent of all Britain’s electricity needs.
Now there’s a fear that it may never happen. The Japanese multinational Toshiba, which formed 60 per cent of NuGen, could be about to pull out of the nuclear energy market.
After suffering heavy losses in the USA, the firm has announced it is reviewing its nuclear operations. The strong suspicion is that it plans to ditch them altogether.
An official announcement won’t be made until Tuesday and the company dismisses the idea that it is going to drop nuclear as “speculation” – but it hasn’t denied it. There’s accurate as well as inaccurate speculation.
What would it mean for Cumbria? Could another company emerge and fill any gap left by Toshiba? And if this part of our furniture goes, how much will we miss it?
The government hasn’t been able to shed any light on the situation. All a Department for Business spokesman could say was: “We are working closely with a number of developers of these proposed projects in the UK, as they develop their plans.”
Charles Maudling is chairman of Whitehaven and District Chamber of Trade and an independent member of Copeland Council.
“We in Copeland rely on the nuclear industry very heavily,” he admits. “We hope that it will still go ahead, if somebody else can come in and take up the reins.”
But he adds that we shouldn’t put all our eggs in the nuclear basket. “We should think about diversification. There’s a lot more that could be done.”
In particular he feels there’s great potential for leisure and tourism. “This is a part of Cumbria that is never really explored. Most people think of Keswick and Ambleside, but it’s equally nice down here. It could be an adventure venue.”
He adds: “Something that’s never really tapped into is the coast-to-coast cycle route. We have 12,000 cyclists a year setting off from Whitehaven, and we don’t get much from them.
“Whitehaven harbour is absolutely wonderful, it’s such a good acoustic setting. There’s a lot more that could be done in this area.
“Leisure would be the big one. But there’s no reason not to diversify into other industries.”
Whitehaven wine merchant Gerard Richardson is confident that another backer for the new nuclear reactors will be found if Toshiba pull out, and reckons the scheme will eventually go ahead. One way or another it’s going to have to.
His worry is how long it will take. The new development should provide jobs for many people who will lose theirs when the ageing parts of Sellafield are closed. But there could be a long gap between the old parts closing and the new parts opening.
“I’m more worried about a delay than cancellation,” he says.
“The idea was that they would have to run down Sellafield, but several thousand new jobs would replace several thousand old ones. But there could be a gap of 12 months, two years, five years or more.
“If you take several thousand pay packets out of the area for any length of time it’s going to have a devastating effect.”
He doesn’t buy Mr Maudling’s argument that leisure and tourism could provide an alternative. “We’ve tried with tourism. We are always trying to draw people across from the central lakes. Whitehaven Festival was brilliant, but the benefits are short-lived.”
Nigel Catterson is executive chairman of Solway Energy Gateway and is also of the belief that new backers will be found for Moorside if Toshiba drops out.
But he points out that nuclear energy isn’t the only game in town – even if it remains an important one. He makes the case for a cheaper, cleaner, far less risky ingredient to the energy mix.
Mr Catterson’s proposal is for an “electric bridge” across the Solway from Bowness to Annan to harness tidal power.
On top would be a cycle and pedestrian bridge. Underneath would be turbines powered by the flow of water. “One estimate is that it would produce eight gigawatts of electricity, which is a huge amount – enough for around 30,000 homes,” he predicts.
It could cost £300m – small change compared to the cost of Moorside – and would last 120 years. And there’s no nuclear waste at the end of it.
Tides on Earth are caused by the gravity of the Moon, and Mr Catterson says: “We always know exactly how much power we are going to get. As long as the Moon is up there we are going to have it. It’s not like wind and it’s not like solar.”
He adds: “There’s no doubt in my mind that we’ve got to have nuclear power in the short to medium term. But over time, once we get efficient energy storage, a lot of renewables will suddenly make a lot more sense.”
Cumbria’s Local Enterprise Partnership has been working with NuGen to bring new reactors to Moorside, and its director Graham Haywood is also confident that it will go ahead with or without Toshiba.
“Moorside is a major part of the UK’s energy strategy,” he says. “It is also very important to the Cumbrian economy as it would create 14,000 to 21,000 jobs.”
He points out: “We are making the case to government for a co-ordinated infrastructure package to support Moorside, for example by improving railways and roads, and funding a programme of skills development and business support to grow the local supply chain.
“It is important to create the right environment to attract direct foreign investment into the project.
“Also, it is a priority for us to ensure that when Moorside is built, it does not just benefit the UK and the people employed on site and in the supply chain, but that there is a wider legacy of benefits for communities across Cumbria.”
That investment in infrastructure is a benefit which Mr Richardson says we have unfairly missed out on. He argues that it’s the least Cumbria deserves.
“I’m a supporter of nuclear power, but some places wouldn’t touch it with a bargepole. We have accepted nuclear waste without complaint – but we’ve never had a reward for that.
“People have been shouting for investment in roads and transportation. And a hospital here should be guaranteed.
“We shouldn’t be having to fight tooth and nail to retain it.”