I THINK after almost a decade of watching the independence movement I have safely arrived at the conclusion independence will never happen nor will another indyref. That said, for this to be certain Britain must move to invest heavily in parts that are or have been minded to leave. Sometimes an opportunity comes along that cannot be ignored.
Ardeer may not seem like the obvious nexus for a new industrial revolution but it soon could be. North Ayrshire is typical of much of the post-industrial central belt (and it does just about count as central belt). Low levels of investment, declining relative incomes, deep-seated economic challenges and a wealth of industrial heritage. It also happens to host one of the two last big nuclear power stations, at Hunterston.
Ardeer is one of five sites, and the only one in Scotland, to be shortlisted by the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority to host what is known as STEP. In fancy jargon this is the Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production. For the rest of us, this could be the first warp drive for fusion power in the world.
The UK happens to be a world leader in fusion research and we have a strong and independent nuclear engineering sector, from building the Navy’s submarine reactors, to maintaining existing power plants to particle research at Culham in Oxford, at CERN in Geneva and ITER (a fusion experiment) at Cadarache in the south of France. The Culham team has worked on the so called spherical tokamak which improves a lot of the mechanics and physics of experimental fusion reactors. While ITER is a large physics experiment, STEP has been designed to produce actual power for electricity production.
In any case, the first country to achieve the big breakthroughs in fusion research grandfathers that research base in its country. The USA led the way with nuclear power, Japan leads in automobile research, the Swiss in high end antibody production. The UK hosting the fusion breakthrough would be a game-changer for energy on Earth.
Carbon neutral, essentially waste free and immune from meltdown, fusion would be a bigger moment for mankind even than the moon landing. The first footage of a self-sustaining fusion reaction will the biggest moment for energy since the light bulb, the telephone and flight combined.
So far so good, so why is the one Scottish site worthy of praise? Why should Scotland be the first place of Earth where fusion is shown to work to create power?
The first reason is Ardeer is very close to a major engineering city, Glasgow, which is already a major producer of satellites. It has engineers producing very high end, high tech engineering. That’s real and it’s unusual in the UK.
The second is world class infrastructure in the form of an international airport, world ranked university, a range of hotels and has hosted global sporting events and conferences. It is able to support a diverse research base of global significance.
The third is lots of land former industrial land ripe for redevelopment. This is crucial in that there is little pressure from possible competing commercial interests. In this sense the only way is up for the former industrial area.
The fourth is an existing unused grid connection, though it is small at 16MW. For initial energy use and production it is ideal and up the road the soon to be decommissioned Hunterston site supplies a 2000MW power link to the National Grid. There is existing and commercial scale connection to the grid to make real energy production a reality.
The fifth is the existing power station, outlined above, is a reservoir of power engineers skilled in handling the engineering and risks of fusion power which requires labour skilled at handling radioactivity. While Ardeer can be considered the ultimate brownfield site, there is an active power site close enough to transfer the essential skills for the long term.
In addition to Ardeer as a suitable site there is the obvious political dimension. Scotland needs to move on from hamster wheel constitutional debates and start showing the political status of the UK works for Scotland. As old industries fade from memory and Covid-19 has devastated the consumer led economy, there has never been a better time to take a great leap forward. North Sea oil rejuvenated the North East of Scotland; we have a chance to do the same for west coast. High income, stable jobs in the energy sector revolutionised a run-down fishing city and it helped save Scotland from independence with a strong No vote. When Britain works for Scots, they’ll vote for it.
The other four shortlisted sites are impressive but they all have drawbacks. Moorside in Cumbria is at the heart of Sellafield but nowhere near a city like Glasgow. It was meant to be a nuclear power station site but this has stalled and this shortlisting feels like a consolation prize. Severn Edge in Gloucestershire likewise is former nuclear site but nowhere near an engineering base capable of nuclear manufacturing, and Ratcliffe-on-Sonar in Nottinghamshire is the centre of a dying coal generation sector. It has a strong past in energy but for a future? I’m not so sure. Goole in Yorkshire is a port and has much skill in construction and heavy engineering but the high-end skills and world class city just doesn’t seem to be there.
Beyond the political advantages of Ardeer it really does seem to have just enough of everything needed for a translational site, taking cutting edge research to the level of commercialisation. It’s high stakes stuff but the records are beyond belief. All of these sites are on the edge of a dream but all have political champions now in local MPs. Ardeer doesn’t and the SNP is not known for its positivity. That makes Ardeer a wild card instead of a front runner and it will need Westminster to make up for it.
This is where the Secretary of State for Scotland needs to STEP up for Ardeer, and for Scotland in the Union.
Hunterston Power Station, from Millport, Isle of Cumbrae,by MichaelY from Shutterstock