The county already boasts 31% of the UK’s nuclear workforce, with some 24,000 people employed in the sector and its supply chain.
But with Boris Johnson’s government this month committing to a major acceleration of nuclear investment to end the UK’s dependence on Russian energy, political leaders in Cumbria are lobbying to be at the centre of the new approach. The Government’s Energy Security Strategy includes the ambition of up to 24 gigawatts of energy by 2050 to come from nuclear power and plans to set up a new Government body, Great British Nuclear.
There is a big focus on new nuclear, including smaller “modular” reactors, to replace Britain’s ageing fleet, with the Government hoping to get 25% of power supplies from the zero carbon technology by 2050.
Small modular reactors (SMRs) are defined as nuclear reactors producing generally 300 mega watts equivalent or less, while Advanced Modular Reactors differ from conventional reactors and aim to maximise the amount of off-site factory fabrication and aim to generate low cost electricity.
A decision is also set to be taken this year on the location for a prototype nuclear fusion plant, a first-of-kind Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production (STEP) facility and a move away from the large fission plants planned elsewhere.
Both fission and fusion are nuclear reactions that produce energy, but the processes are very different. Fission is the splitting of a heavy, unstable nucleus into two lighter nuclei, and fusion is the process where two light nuclei combine together releasing vast amounts of energy.
Sellafield, a large multi-function nuclear site close to Seascale on the Cumbrian coast, is already at the centre of the county’s economy. Activities at the site include nuclear fuel reprocessing, nuclear waste storage and nuclear decommissioning, and it is a former nuclear power generating site.
But nearby Moorside is at the centre of what Cumbrian leaders hope will be the “next chapter in the northern success story of nuclear innovation in Cumbria”.
The brownfield site was identified as the proposed location for a nuclear power generation site for NuGeneration, a British subsidiary of Toshiba-owned Westinghouse Electric Company but the plan did not go ahead.
The site, which is mainly in agricultural use, remains under consideration as a possible location for other forms of low-carbon power generation, such as a clean energy hub.
But it is one of five sites in contention to host the STEP facility, based on “spherical” tokamak technology that is currently being pioneered at the UK’s Culham Centre for Fusion Energy.
Tokamak uses magnetic fields to confine a plasma of heavy isotopes of hydrogen, tritium and deuterium, which fuse under extreme heat and pressure.
A final decision on its location is expected at the end of 2022 but the scheme would create thousands of jobs and aim to generate a “near-limitless” source of low-carbon energy, the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) said.
Other contenders include Ardeer in North Ayrshire, Goole in the East Riding of Yorkshire, Ratcliffe-on-Soar, Nottinghamshire and Severn Edge, Gloucestershire.
Jo Lappin, Chief Executive of Cumbria’s Local Enterprise Partnership, said: “Cumbria and the North West is uniquely placed to make a low carbon future a reality. We have the skilled workforce and pioneering spirit that established the region as the UK’s centre for nuclear excellence.
“Around 40% of the UK’s total nuclear workforce are in the North West, with even more in neighbouring northern communities. That’s a fantastic foundation on which to build the long-term nuclear future and fusion technology.
“There’s been much talk about levelling-up and investments that are really catalytic for the growth of communities – the decision on where to locate the STEP facility is one of those.
“Selecting Moorside would not only help close the productivity gap in the North, establishing a long-term nuclear future away from the large fission plants currently planned elsewhere, it would be the next chapter in the northern success story of nuclear innovation in Cumbria.
“We’re ready to work as a partner to Government and the new Great British Nuclear to deliver on these promising nuclear commitments.”
Rebecca Weston, Chief Operating Officer of Sellafield Ltd, added: “We’re extremely proud of the nuclear capability, supply chain and skills, built up over decades, that’s part of the backbone of Cumbria’s economy. We’ve also a track record in delivering first-of-kind nuclear energy facilities.”
Last week, as the Government unveiled its Energy Security Strategy, Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng posted a map of the UK online which marks out the eight sites set for new nuclear in the future.
Moorside was amongst the locations mentioned as well as Heysham in Lancashire, Wylfa, Hartlepool, Sizewell and Hinkley.
Mr Kwarteng said: “To meet our new 24 Gigawatt target, we’re going to progress up to 8 more reactors this decade. The Government’s energy strategy set out plans to serve 25 per cent of the UK’s electricity demand through low carbon nuclear solutions by 2050. Large-scale nuclear is not a quick fix, but a vital investment in our country’s energy independence.”
David Moore, Copeland Council’s portfolio holder for nuclear and corporate services said: “Moorside is one of the recognised sites, what they’re not saying is what might be on those sites.”
Copeland has registered an interest in siting small modular reactors at Moorside as well as advanced modular reactors and the groundbreaking STEP project.
Cllr Moore said: “Moorside’s the only one on that list currently in for fusion, and the SMRs and the newbuild. We know we’re going to get something.”
Investment in Cumbria would help address a gap in productivity which means workers in the country contribute 23% less towards the economy than the UK average and 15% below the regional average.
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And Whitehaven Labour councillor Joseph Ghayouba was sceptical about local investment. He said: “Twelve years of promises and three government strategies (net zero, hydrogen and energy) and not a spade in the ground at Moorside. If you look behind the flashy headlines, nothing has changed.”
The Government’s strategy includes an aim to take the decision to go ahead with one project within the next two years and for another two projects in the five years after that, potentially progressing work on up to eight new reactors across those projects by 2030.
The nuclear industry has strongly welcomed the plans, which it says will create tens of thousands of new jobs and help to achieve energy security, but even industry groups acknowledged that new nuclear power stations will take well over a decade to build.
The Nuclear Industry Association said steps are now needed to speed up investment, such as removing barriers to getting projects started, money from a promised fund allocated “at pace” and sites made available for development.
But nuclear power remains relatively expensive, and the Liberal Democrats warned construction of the full eight reactors could add £96 a year to household energy bills.