Sometimes seeing your world through the eyes of an outsider is useful: I was once a stranger to this coast but that was 15 years ago. So I accompanied LFIG on a trip to see, I thought, the nuclear industry.
LFIG members report having observed innovative, outstanding engineering, world class construction, the space industry and joined up education, skills and research facilities.
West Cumbria hosts the UK’s largest registered nuclear site, although no power is currently produced here. Sellafield was deliberately sited in a geographically remote area but at that time West Cumbria was a hive of industry with iron and coal mining, steel making, a large chemical industry and much more. There was a good pool of talented locals that Sellafield had to compete to attract. Infrastructure by1950 standards was good with a railway running right by the site.
Today Sellafield is the largest employer in Cumbria with over 10,000 on payroll plus an additional 3,000 – 4000 contractors: the supply chain employs many more. This in an area classified as rural. Most other industry has not survived.
Decommissioning a large nuclear site, the first stages of which were built experimentally and secretly, is challenging. Normal demolition methods are inappropriate and innovative solutions have to be found. West Cumbria has always developed those solutions itself. The challenge to separate the radioactive from the inert to produce minimal waste runs alongside developing imaginative uses for by-products. And the process is ongoing. The expertise to identify and separate is developing almost exponentially year on year. Science and engineering are key.
West Cumbrians have grown up alongside their nuclear industry. Understanding of the site is such amongst locals that the ‘no prior knowledge’ tour was too advanced for LFIG: a reflection of the basic knowledge that even school children have here. We take for granted the engineering and robotics- adjudged a cross between Star Trek and Dr Who. Robots that can chop and sort fuel rods under water, instruments that can scan a room from the doorway and tell you how much radiation, where and in what chemical form, routine chemical separation processes: all developed (and developing) here in West Cumbria.
We are proud of our expertise and want to build on it. We need opportunities for our young people. A construction skills centre linking secondary with higher education, the National Nuclear Laboratory with formalised links to world class universities, supply-chain engineering companies involved in innovative R and D, and a new University Technical College: all are here.
But progress is slow. All who visit are amazed by the technical expertise and innovation in the area, all agree this should be built on. But there lies the rub. Infrastructure that was fantastic in 1950 is slow and out-dated in 2014. As an LFIG member who drove will attest, it’s a long way from London, and feels like the rural area it is once the M6 is left behind. The West Coast mainline is an hour’s drive east with a coastal branchline now constrained by the natural features it hugs. So casual observers of industrial life are hard to attract.
But those working here continue to innovate and are diversifying out onto other industries – local firms worked to keep the 2012 Olympics safe and have spread their expertise to the Scottish oil industry. We are beginning to realise as LFIG did that we do have world class engineering, construction and science innovation. We have 21st century education facilities.
Welcome to West Cumbria where sometime soon you may even be in the heart of the British space industry: no longer edge of the world but centre of the universe.
Cllr. Gillian Troughton is Executive member for Finance & Resources on Copeland Borough Council and Chair of Copeland CLP