TREVOR TARRING: Rio Tinto Alcan’s closure of Lynemouth ends long aberration

The news that Rio Tinto Alcan is closing the Lynemouth aluminium smelter in north-east England marks the end of a chapter that began more than 40 years ago.

The news that Rio Tinto Alcan is closing the Lynemouth aluminium smelter in north-east England marks the end of a chapter that began more than 40 years ago.

The scene then is set by the following quote from my book Corner:

“Two further specific factors concerning the UK were part of the picture. The first was the desire for a ‘white hot technological revolution’ of the late 1960s government of Harold Wilson.

“To implement this, he invented some wholly unrealistic electricity pricing formulae, based on optimistic estimates of power generation costs that should in due course be possible from atomic power.

“He then used these figures to persuade aluminium majors to invest in new aluminium smelters in the UK, where they had never before been remotely feasible.

“Thus, in the space of a few years, the UK went from [being] one of Europe’s biggest importers of ingot to full self-sufficiency.

“The other factor was the UK’s accession to the EEC under Edward Heath. This meant the UK was now inside the European aluminium import duty barrier.”

First to sign up
The first of three producers to sign up was British Aluminium, which had long been a primary producer on a small scale at Foyers on Loch Ness.

With an uneconomic capacity of a few thousand tons a year, but its own hydro power station established early in the 20th century, BA kept the unit going as a super-purity producer.

As a major semi-fabricator in the UK, BA fell hook, line and sinker for Wilson’s artificially cheap power, and in 1971 established a six-figures capacity smelter at Invergordon on the Cromarty Firth, handy for the import of alumina.

When the promised cheap power never realistically materialised, Invergordon was also the first of the three smelters to close – as early as 1981.

Artificial power cost
The second project to show its hand was Anglesey in North Wales, backed by Kaiser Aluminum and Rio Tinto. It, too, depended on Wilson’s artificial power cost to be viable.

There were thoughts that the 127,000 tpy smelter would receive some actual atomic power but, in the end, its power costs were still, like Invergordon’s, purely an accounting convention. It finally closed in 2009.

Innovative answer
Alcan’s approach at Lynemouth was different. It refused to believe in Wilson’s promised electricity cost figures, but found its own innovative answer.

This involved the Easington coal mine in Durham, which had a shallow seam of good coal sandwiched between two layers of carboniferous shale. The deposit extended out under the sea.

The mine was obliged to extract the shale as a waste product along with the coal. Alcan’s trick was to erect a thermal power station at the pithead to burn the shale and power a 130,000 tpy smelter from 1974.

Unfortunately, the nearest port for alumina imports was some dozen miles away and it had to complete its journey by rail. Once the coal ran out, of course, the whole plot became uneconomic.

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