It’s part of the nature of journalism that bad news happens more often than good. Unexpected events, breakdowns, natural disasters hit the headlines, while things operating as normal tend to escape attention. So it’s great for us to be able to report an unequivocal piece of good news in the relighting of the blast furnace at Redcar Steelworks, under its new owners, Thai firm Sahaviriya Steel Industries (SSI), after two years out of action.
There are several dimensions to the restart. It takes in the continuation of a 160-year history of steelmaking in Redcar; the saving of over 1600 jobs; the investment into a financially-deprived region. But not least of them is the sheer scale of the project.
When former owners Corus mothballed the furnace in early 2010, it was thought unlikely that it would ever re-open. We reported on it as the latest chapter in the sad story of the decline of British steelmaking, and speculated on whether there might be opportunities for its former employees in offshore renewables, and what plant closures like this meant for the UK’s much-discussed engineering skills gap.
With the purchase of the plant by SSI, a market for its steel — the lack of which led to its mothballing — was secured, and the work to restore the furnace began. Europe’s second-largest blast furnace is almost as tall as St Paul’s Cathedral, with a hearth 14m across, and following its closure its pipes were clogged with debris. This had to be cleared and the furnace relined — a process which can take years, but which the Redcar workforce completed in nine months. The furnace then had to be pre-heated with for gas stoves for two months to achieve a temperature of 1200°C inside the hearth, before being reignited with a gas flame. According to tradition, this is lit from the hearth of an operating furnace — a task completed by the 11-year-old son of local union leader and campaigner Geoff Waterfield, who died last August.
So were we, and other observers, premature in assuming that British steelworking was dying? With the relighting at Redcar and Tata’s announcement of £800m of investment in Welsh steelworks, it looks like we were. Part of the pessimism was because the main markets for the steel, in Southeast Asia, were so far away from the UK; but it seems that factor is not so important to SSI and Tata. The existing facilities and experienced workforces in Britain must be important — despite the high cost of renovating and restarting furnaces, it’s still cheaper than building one and staffing it from scratch. And SSI has said that it might even expand Redcar, if demand improves.
Increasing automation in steelmaking means that it will never employ as many people as it did in the 1960s and 1970s. But demand for steel is high and will remain so, as economic growth in Asia continues, new buildings and cities go up, and newly-prosperous people look to buy cars and white goods. Are there even more opportunities for the original home of steelmaking? If the UK can produce high-quality material efficiently and cost-effectively — and SSI and Tata certainly think that it can — then why not? Hopefully, there will be more good news for us to report in the coming years.