A Sheffield company approached the Government yesterday with a formal request for part-funding of a £140m plan to build the biggest steel-forging press in the world and steal a march on the booming nuclear industry.
Sheffield Forgemasters wants to construct an open-die press that exerts a massive 15,000 tonnes of pressure and can make components big enough for even the largest modern reactors.
There are only four super-presses already, including one – a mere 10,000 tonnes – at Forgemasters. But they are too few to meet ballooning demand for nuclear power stations, and only the biggest, in Japan, can manufacture the giant parts needed for super-size, next-generation reactors.
Peter Birtle, a director at Sheffield Forgemasters, said: "We want a press that is substantially bigger than the one in Japan and is capable of making 100 per cent of the forgings required for the biggest reactors around today."
Not only would the facility mean the UK nuclear industry – which is set to build at least eight new power stations in the coming years – could avoid joining the queue at forges overseas, but it would also establish Sheffield as a centre for the global market. "There is a substantial shortage because today there is only enough forging capacity, globally, to make around seven or eight reactors annually, whereas the world has plans to be building 13 per year," Mr Birtle said.
The majority of the £140m needed for the press has already been raised, from a combination of bank loans and future customers putting up money in advance in return for a guarantee of the forge's capacity. But despite approaches from venture capitalists "in the double digits", the company is reluctant to dilute its shareholders' stakes only three years after the management buyout that saved the group from closure. Instead, Forgemasters hopes the Department for Business will stump up the balance.
Future demand is strong, as governments across the world turn to nuclear to meet concerns about carbon emissions, energy security and dwindling hydrocarbon reserves. "The press will be capable of manufacturing all the forgings for about two reactors per year," Mr Birtle said. "At today's values, that is a sales output of about £110-120m."
The Government may well look kindly on the approach. Part of the appeal of the UK's nuclear renaissance is the establishment of a vibrant supply chain of companies that can also sell into the global market. Several big names – including BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce and Doosan Babcock – have announced plans to expand in the civil nuclear industry, and are working with Westinghouse, the reactor developer, on its latest designs.
"For these companies, a factor in their success in the global industry is the availability of forgings from which to build these reactors," Mr Birtle said. "If they have a domestic supplier in the UK then they are in a much stronger position in the global nuclear renaissance than if they are reliant on a Japanese source."
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