Doubt cast over power plant’s future

Adaptations will have to be made to the coal-fired facility

The future of one of north-east England’s largest industrial plants, on which thousands of jobs depend, was thrown into uncertainty on Thursday following a European court of justice decision.

The court, sitting in Luxembourg, ruled that the UK government has failed to fulfil its obligations to enforce the large combustion plants directive on the Lynemouth power plant at the Alcan smelter site in Northumberland. The ruling, against which there is no right of appeal, means adaptations costing at least £200m ($307m) will have to be made to the coal-fired plant.

The Alcan complex in south-east Northumberland, an area hard hit by the loss of traditional heavy industry, employs 650 people directly and indirectly supports 3,500 jobs. Since its owner, Rio Tinto Alcan, operates globally, the Northumberland plant will have to fight its case for investment against other locations worldwide.

On Thursday Rio Tinto Alcan insisted it had demonstrated “to everyone’s satisfaction” that local air quality meets UK and European standards. Expressing disappointment with the verdict, which follows nearly a decade of talks, it said it would examine with the UK government the judgment’s details and options for further improvement. Ministers said they accepted the court’s ruling.

“We hope an outcome will be reached which allows Lynemouth to remain on a path towards a long-term and sustainable future, built on innovative solutions to our energy needs,” Rio Tinto Alcan said. One possibility could be for the plant to be a demonstrator for carbon capture and storage, a £1bn project.

A shift from coal as a fuel to biomass could also be an option. The date by which the Lynemouth power station must conform to the LCP directive has yet to be determined.

The directive is intended to limit emissions of sulphur, nitrogen oxides and dust from large, ageing plants generating more than 50MW.

Rio Tinto Alcan, which has reduced emissions of carbon dioxide at Lynemouth by more than 65 per cent since 1990, contends it already meets more stringent legislation, the European air quality directive.

The Lynemouth site, which burns 1.2m tonnes of coal a year and produces 180,000 tonnes of primary aluminium, has operated since 1972, initially running on local coal. Its coal now comes from Russia and from UK opencast sites.

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