28DL Full Member
...And so it came to be that primary aluminium production left the UK's shores forever, another process moved abroad at our own cost.
DrHowser and I started talking about this at the beginning of the year. AJ and Horus did a fantastic job hitting this last year, and we know they had enough of a time trying to evade workers around the ring furnaces that they did well to come away unscathed with pictures! Speculation at the time there would be nothing left worth seeing. I felt otherwise, and Howser was inclined to agree. It takes longer than a year to completely flatten a site on this scale and magnitude! We decided to pay it a visit.The industrial sun has almost set on what started as a political and industrial initiative by Labour in 1968 to add a considerable production dimension to aluminium and provide a fillip for regional policy and the balance of payments. There were generous grants, industrial allowances and “cheap” energy contracts linked to nuclear power for Invergordon and Anglesey, and coal for Lynemouth.
Forty years on, the smelters are now industrial relics, regarded as an economic failure and a classic example of a Government attempt to pick winners that backfired. Niall MacKenzie, head of the Institute for Innovation Studies at the University of Wales, says the venture was doomed from the start because of the heavy reliance on subsidies, compounded by blunders by electricity generators and management shortcomings.
The Wilson administration hoped the “white heat” of new technology would generate a new industrial revolution and an interventionist Government would bring industry into the 20th century. The reality was that the National Plan was pulped and the Industrial Reorganisation Corporation’s attempts to create world-class businesses promised much but delivered little.
At one stage, Britain had three smelters producing more than 300,000 tonnes a year of primary aluminium.The first, at Invergordon, closed in 1981 after an unsuccessful struggle by what was then British Aluminium (BA) to demonstrate the Highlands was capable of supporting big business as well as smaller hydro-powered smelters. It had cost the taxpayer Â£381m. The second, at Anglesey, originally operated by RTZ (now Rio Tinto) and Kaiser, closed in 2009 after failing to re-negotiate a “cheap” power contract following the closure of Wylfa nuclear power station. It was the EU's large combustion plant directive that spelled death for the Lynemouth site, as the cost of generating the vast amount of power required for the smelting process, using their coal-fired plant, would drive their profit margins below Rio Tinto's company standard of 40%. With no buyers for the smelter, the announcement was made in 2011 that it would be decommissioned. It was said to be still profitable when the decision was taken to close the plant, but energy, accounting for around 30pc of production costs, has taxed it out of business.
The Lynemouth closure brings down the curtain on the last of Harold Wilson’s “white heat” interventions, while the aluminium industry has undergone radical structural changes in the period. BA is history and Rio Tinto is now a global player with its takeover of Alcan. Rio Tinto Alcan said climate change programmes, higher energy prices and EU and UK carbon taxes, upped costs by Â£46m a year.
Driving up to Lynemouth in the evening, the first thing we noticed was that there were lights on. Excellent. Not the whole site, but definitely a large portion of it. Security were noticeably present as a car could be heard, and walls would temporarily light up as the headlights went past. There were cameras fucking everywhere. Our best hope was to get over the fence (a task in itself, for much of the length of site the fence is doubled up palisade with barbed wire on top and a drainage ditch between the two), and get inside as quick as possible.
Visited on 2 seperate occassions, the first with DrHowser, the second saw Tweek getting in on the industrial carnage.
Big UK industry. Heavy. Lights on.
The basis for all modern primary aluminium smelting plants is the Hall-HÃ©roult Process, invented in 1886. Alumina is dissolved in an electrolytic bath of molten cryolite (sodium aluminium fluoride) within a large carbon or graphite lined steel container known as a "pot". An electric current is passed through the electrolyte at low voltage, but very high current, typically 150,000 amperes. The electric current flows between a carbon anode (positive), made of petroleum coke and pitch, and a cathode (negative), formed by the thick carbon or graphite lining of the pot.
There are four of these sheds in parallel, perhaps a Km long, each containing 2 rows of these. They are the main event onsite, so to speak, and they stand at just over twice the average human height. The smelting takes place inside at about 900Â°C, but once formed the aluminium has a melting point of only 660Â°C, making recycling much easier and more cost- effective than production. Sadly, for 3/4 of the length of the sheds, the lights were off.
We noticed after a while the ground was becoming 'crunchy' underfoot. Shavings of raw solidified aluminium literally covered the floor. Under the pots we found some really large lumps too. Imagine this place in action, spitting liquid metal all over the shop. Epic.
We made our way down the potlines towards the end where the lights were clearly still on, marching in pitch darkness past rows of huge pots. Awesome vehicles were left all over the place. This buggy was down a corridor we dashed past, but it was only a momentary stop and snap. I wanted lit up pots.
Sadly, it wasn't to be. Where they'd left the lights on was where they had been working. The pots were gone but the space was still very interesting, revealing some of the complexity disguised by the pot cases.
On our first visit, we climbed down into the gaps left by missing pots, and into the 'tunnels' under the potlines. This is deceptive because whilst it feels to all intents and purposes like you're in a tunnel, it's actually on the ground floor and open to the elements. If security drove past, they'd see you.
Under the Potlines
Raw Materials Storage
I liked the lights in here, noticing them on my first visit. On the second, I took a two minute solo mission to get a picture. Probably shouldn't have bothered! Bad framing, dust on the lens... Still like the light though.
Up until now we'd known what to expect, having done our research on the smelting process before. However, the anode plant contained much that was new to us, and was altogether a nice surprise that I hadn't really considered. The site produced its own anodes as they erode during smelting and need replacing, at which time they are recycled.
It was whilst we were in here that we had our closest call of the night. A loud engine was heard approaching rapidly, and we all piled under some machinery waiting for the guy to drive off. He hung around momentarily but was soon on his way, as were we.
This is the conveyor in what I believe is known as the Green Mix tower, we went further up but it became less photogenic.
Anode Bath Control
This is where the anodes would be baked in pits roughly 3 metres deep after the raw materials had been mixed and shaken into blocks. The Lynemouth site had 2 state of the art ring furnaces, worth a cool Â£17 million each.
Taken from atop the gantry cab, was a dirty old mission getting up there and then I go and waste it all on a wonky ass soft shot like this! Meh.
It was in here, conveniently, that we all decided we'd seen enough and it was time to bail. We'd worked our way through maybe 3/4 of the site in a horseshoe, ending up at the end we'd entered but on the wrong corner. Stepping outside, it was safe to assume we were on camera the whole way out so it was time for The Walk. You might be familiar with it, it's way better than running... Chest out. Shoulders back. Try your utmost to believe you're supposed to be there. Ok, now climb that fence and run away. What a place!
Final notes, we were surprised and delighted at how intact the site still is, a year into decommissioning, but things have picked up a bit now, a lot disappeared between our visits. Security are clearly on the ball, we didn't get caught but were constantly on our guard, as there's enough noise onsite that you can't pick an engine or motor out until it's halfway up the site towards you. We didn't run into workers either, but were sure at least on our first visit they were there, the usual loud banging and angle grinding sounds being our indicators.
Cheers for reading!
Shouts to Howser and Tweek.