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.



Who’s going to pull us out of this economic mess? Big companies, SMEs, or the North West’s answer to Mark Zuckerberg lurking on one of our university campuses like Lancaster or UCLAN?

Unemployment might top three million by year end according to some forecasters.

Certainly last week’s jobless figures did nothing to raise spirits in manufacturing areas like Lancashire.

Hard on the heels of the unemployment statistics came news of disappointing sales results at BAE Systems. That’s a big company employing thousands of people at Warton, Salmesbury and Chorley.

They’ve been hit by falling defence orders and may lose a major contract for Eurofighter Typhoons for the Indian air force to the French. It should be pointed out however that Dassault Aviation is only the preferred bidder and frantic efforts are being made to ensure all is not lost.

Then there’s AstraZeneca employing three thousand people at Alderley Park in Cheshire. There’s another giant in the job cutting business because producing new highly profitable drugs is getting more difficult.

Finally in this catalogue of tottering titans, we have General Motors which owns the Vauxhall plant at Ellesmere Port. Despite a highly efficient and cooperative workforce, the American based management is reported to be contemplating cuts in its European operations here and in Germany.

So what’s to be done? BAE, AstraZeneca and Vauxhall are big potatoes in the North West economic stew. If they are downsizing, where are the jobs to come from?

The Institute for Public Policy Research North published a report last week that might provide part of the answer.

The document “Beyond bricks and mortar boards: universities and the future of regional economic development”, points out that knowledge-based industries employing staff with high level skills will see the most significant growth in job creation by the end of the decade.

So universities like UCLAN will be central to skill creation, but the report says there needs to be wider recognition of the role universities can play in the North West economy.

As well as producing highly skilled people, the report identifies their economic impact in university towns like Lancaster where high incomes are generated and the institution is a significant employer.

Like everyone else, universities have had to adjust to the new regional policy landscape which has seen the Regional Development Agency and North West Universities Association swept away.

The report challenges the new Local Enterprise Partnerships to make the best use of the universities in this region.

At the launch of the report in Manchester there was an acceptance of this approach, but efforts by a few attendees to trash the reputation of the RDA were resisted. The Vice Chancellor of Manchester Metropolitan University, Prof. John Brooks, was not alone in criticising the lack of regional focus in the new arrangements.

From the rarefied company of academics in Manchester I was quickly back to low politics on Merseyside.

First I dropped in on Alec Salmond charming an audience in St George’s Hall with his demand for Scottish independence. The First Minister is a clever politician lacing his address with references toLiverpooland all the fine football managers his country has bequeathed the city.

I wanted to ask him a key question but wasn’t lucky enough to be called so I’ll ask it here. “Mr Salmond, you have a mandate for a yes/no referendum on Scottish independence. What you don’t have is a mandate to ask a question about ‘ devo max’ which could muddle the answer and would show your lack of confidence that you can get full independence. What’s your answer?’’

Then it was on to Wallasey Town Hall to see the latest chapter in the soap that is Wirral politics. Steve Foulkes has been deposed as Labour leader after just nine months back in office by a coalition of Tories and Lib Dems which may only have three months in power before Labour sweeps back in the May elections.

Wirral was one of the councils most opposed to a city region mayor. I fear they will become increasingly marginalised conducting their power struggles whilst Liverpool benefits from the cash that will follow the election of a mayor.

On that subject I have only one thing to say this week and it is to Phil Redmond. In a Liverpool newspaper, the Tarporley resident tells us he wants to be provided with a series of answers before he deigns to tell us if he’s a candidate or not.

Find out for yourself Phil, and then decide one way or the other. Unlike arty seminars, politics requires decisions.