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Last Updated: Wednesday, 4 October 2006, 14:59 GMT 15:59 UK
Cumbria prepares for life after Sellafield
By Toby Poston
Business reporter, BBC News, in west Cumbria

Sellafield nuclear site in Cumbria
The Sellafield plant employs thousands in west Cumbria

West Cumbria is an area proud of its manufacturing heritage, with much of the workforce traditionally earning money from the steel, shipbuilding and chemicals industries.

Jobs have been lost in all of these sectors, but for more than 50 years there has been one saving grace for the region: Sellafield.

The sprawling site has created thousands of well paid nuclear industry jobs at the power station, decommissioning plants or waste reprocessing and storage facilities.

Sellafield employs 12,000 people, representing 52% of the manufacturing jobs in west Cumbria's two main boroughs.

Nuclear decline

In the Borough of Copeland, where Sellafield is situated, half of the working population is dependent on it for work.

Unfortunately, the local community's reliance on the nuclear business has reached its peak just as the industry has entered a period of massive upheaval and uncertainty.

We are not going to attract a major car plant to Cumbria, so there is no point chasing Nissan or Toyota
Terry Ponting, Cumbria Vision

A 2003 report estimated that the region could lose 8,000 jobs by 2011/12 as parts of the Sellafield site are decommissioned and fuel reprocessing comes to an end.

The same report said that the changes would result in a wider overall loss of 17,000 jobs by 2017.

It is a daunting prospect for West Cumbria, which already has the least productive economy of any region in the UK.

External investors

Local MPs, the Department of Trade and Industry and the North West Regional Development Agency have commissioned a "master plan", due to be published this October, that will attempt to deal with these job losses and help the West Cumbrian economy diversify.

"We need an economy that is vibrant, that will grow and attract external investors and make people want to come and work here," says Terry Ponting, a consultant with Cumbria Vision, which has been charged with overseeing the production of the plan.

Whitehaven harbour
Whitehaven has spruced up its harbour to attract tourists

The team recognises that the jobs lost at Sellafield will be high-paying ones, salaries that cannot just be replaced by more recruitment from the lower paid public sector or leisure and tourism industries.

Attracting new highly-paid jobs will be tough, with numerous business surveys in the region highlighting barriers, including a lack of relevant skills, poor transport links and road congestion.

"We have to be realistic," says Mr Ponting. "We are not going to attract a major car plant to Cumbria, so there is no point chasing Nissan or Toyota."

The masterplan is expected to call for improved rail, air and road links, the creation of a Cumbria University and the greater exploitation of the region's coastal areas and countryside - all key factors in attracting and maintaining a skilled workforce.

But the plan is expected to rely heavily on one particular industry for future job growth.

You've guessed it: the nuclear industry.

Nuclear waste

Generates 22% of Cumbria's economic productivity
The 8,000 job losses predicted will take an extra 5,800 dependent jobs elsewhere in the economy
These jobs would knock 1bn from the Cumbrian economy
Source: Cumbria Vision

The government's recent Energy Review announced that nuclear power was back on the agenda, and with a sizeable nuclear footprint already, Sellafield seems a likely destination for any new reactors.

It also seems an obvious choice for the government's planned underground nuclear waste repository.

Whitehall has decided that burial is the best solution for the UK's estimated 470,000 cubic metres of nuclear waste, but it needs to find a local community willing to back the idea.

As most of this waste is already stored above ground at Sellafield anyway, the decision would appear to be a simple one.


Along with Sellafield, much of the UK nuclear industry's infrastructure needs to be dismantled and cleaned up, a 72bn business that the region wants a big chunk of.

Nexia headquarters in Sellafield
Could Nexia's HQ be the home of a new National Nuclear Laboratory?

It has already achieved a major success with the government's decision to base the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), the body that will oversee this task, in the area.

Much of the clean-up bill will be spent at Sellafield anyway, but the NDA is also working with nearby universities, research organisations and government bodies to boost the nuclear skills base in the region.

It is investing 20m in a new Nuclear Institute and a national Nuclear Skills Academy to attract world-class research professionals and provide vocational training and apprenticeships for people wanting to work in the industry.

New recruits and expertise are essential for the UK nuclear industry, which has haemorrhaged skilled workers in the decade since the country's last new nuclear power station was built.

"Twenty years ago there were 9,000 skilled nuclear technicians in the UK, but most of these people have now gone, along with the companies they worked for," says Peter Bleasdale, managing director of Nexia Solutions, the research and technology sister company of British Nuclear Group (BNG), which manages the Sellafield site.

"This figure has now shrunk to about 500 and we are it."

Nuclear lab

BNG and Nexia are state-owned, and both face uncertain futures.

BNG is being sold, but bosses at Nexia hope their firm will form the basis of a new National Nuclear Laboratory, which could undertake research projects related to the UK clean-up as well as work from other nuclear plants around the world.

Nexia has invested 300m on new headquarters close to Sellafield, which includes some of the most advanced nuclear laboratories anywhere in the world.

The company is recruiting at all levels and Mr Bleasdale is confident that the National Nuclear Laboratory will centre on Nexia's operations, and West Cumbria.

"I think it is highly unlikely that it will not go ahead - the issue is more one of ownership, governance and the scope of work it will look at," he says.

As for the long term job prospects within West Cumbria's all important nuclear industry, even Nexia's high-powered microscopes cannot see that far.

"I can't see a big decrease over the next ten years, but beyond that things are a bit hazy."

This is the third in a series of features about the Cumbrian economy.

Nuclear power plants get go-ahead
11 Jul 06 |  UK Politics
Business welcomes N-power plans
11 Jul 06 |  Business
Doubts over Blair's nuclear plan
17 May 06 |  Cumbria
Nuclear clean-up 'to cost 70bn'
30 Mar 06 |  Business

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