Jamie Reed: How Sellafield is learning the lesson of the UK’s industrial history

Posted On: 
15th February 2018

PoliticsHome speaks to former Labour MP Jamie Reed about his new role as Head of Development & Community Relations at Sellafield Ltd, the nuclear fuel reprocessing and decommissioning site in Cumbria.

Sellafield Ltd

Jamie Reed had no idea it had been exactly a year since he stood down as MP for Copeland until a former Labour colleague alerted him to it during a visit to parliament back in January. Twelve months on and so much has changed in Westminster since his departure, though it’s still as chaotic.

Reed left frontline British politics after 12 years to return to his native Cumbria and Sellafield Ltd, the nuclear fuel reprocessing and decommissioning site where he previously worked as a press officer. Now head of development and community relations, how is he adjusting to life outside the bubble?

“It’s fairly strange, leaving Westminster. I left to genuinely do more for the community in which I live and the community I represented in parliament. I think there are obviously real barriers to securing progress on a lot of issues in parliament right now,” he says.

“It was clear before I stood down that all roads were going to lead to Brexit and it was going to be very hard to get done the kind of things I wanted to achieve in parliament. Leaving parliament to join Sellafield Ltd was an opportunity to first of all to go back to a very successful business in an industry I’ve always championed and care a lot about, but also to do more for the community that I live in.

“It still takes some getting used to. But there’s no question in my mind that I’ve made the right decision.”

Reed watches Westminster closely but not with regret. He became known for relentlessly banging the drum for the nuclear industry while an MP, and speaks with expected enthusiasm when relaying his passion for Sellafield Ltd’s unique history.

“It’s a remarkable business with a remarkable story. If you look at it right now, it’s one of the biggest construction sites in Europe and one of the biggest industrial facilities anywhere in the UK,” he says.

“If you look at the history of why the Sellafield site was created – a  national mission to produce the materials to support Britain and our western allies in what became the Cold War – the  site and the community around it succeeded in that mission. I think that’s a phenomenal legacy that should be celebrated a lot more.

“A few years later… Sellafield was the home to the world’s first commercial nuclear power plant. I’m very, very proud of that. We provided the best part of half a century of low carbon electricity to the UK economy.”

Sellafield Ltd is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, a non-departmental Government body reporting into the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).

This year, the company became a partner of the Northern Powerhouse initiative, which aims to rebalance the economy away from London and the South East towards the north of England. Sellafield Ltd employs 11,000 people and, as Reed notes, receives funding in the region of £2bn a year.

While Reed, a seasoned veteran of the interview format, can articulate crisply to me the Sellafield story, how does he plan to convey it to the wider public?

“The best way to explain how I’m going to tell the Sellafield story is by saying it simply, more accurately and to new audiences.

“There’s a lot of assumptions made about Sellafield, there’s a lot of misunderstanding about what Sellafield is and what it does, so we’re going to tell the story more frequently and ensure that  people understand just what a unique national asset Sellafield represents. ” he says. “Sellafield Ltd is an extremely successful business.”

Covering six square kilometres, the site is home to more than 200 nuclear facilities and the largest inventory of untreated nuclear materials  in the world. The company and its supply chain are tackling Sellafield’s varied portfolio of decommissioning, reprocessing, spent fuel management, nuclear waste management and material management.

With its reprocessing operations set to come to an end by 2020, Sellafield Ltd is now adapting to become an environmental remediation company – safely decommissioning and cleaning up the site.

As a result of this recalibration, you might expect there to be some redundancy announcements. However, Reed proudly states that the company is on track to protect around 2,000 jobs that support the site’s reprocessing operations. This will be done through reskilling and retraining staff, all carried out while Sellafield Ltd meets its targeted £1.4bn in efficiency savings for the Treasury by 2020 and a further £1.4bn by 2029.

And it’s in the north of England where memories of past closures still ring large in Reed’s mind. “We’re on track to relocate those affected into new roles and that’s an incredible achievement. It didn’t have to be that way, we just look at the recent industrial history of the UK in the coalfields, shipyards and the steelworks, and we see what mass redundancies do to communities. We see the long lasting economic effects of those,” he says.

“And in Cumbria of course, we can look at what happened in the 1990s at the shipyards in Barrow-in-Furness to see what happens when significant redundancy programs are introduced. We’ve chosen not to do that in the best interests of the business but also our community. We have a common purpose: our success is mutual.”

And it’s really for this reason why Reed left politics to return to Sellafield Ltd. He wants to see the Cumbrian economy diversify and have greater private sector involvement. As part of Sellafield Ltd’s own investment in the local region, Reed points to social initiatives including a new school campus in neighbouring Whitehaven supported by Sellafield Ltd to the tune of £10m, an investment that has leveraged in over £30m.

“In the future I’d like to see dependence on Sellafield Ltd’s dominance of the local economy reduced.  Because of the work we’ve done, because of the partnerships we’ve created we’re aiming for a much bigger, diverse and more sustainable private sector economy in Cumbria,” he says.

So is it a case of learning from the past with the closures of coalmines, steel plants and shipyards to ensure a similar fate does not befall Cumbria?

“Absolutely and that’s one of the real drivers for me in changing roles last year, because I don’t think that there is a lever in Whitehall or a magic button in Westminster anybody is going to push or pull and solve that problem. This problem has got to be solved on the ground, it’s got to be solved by the communities, businesses and industry coming together.

“It really does require a genuine partnership between the public and the private sector, trade unions, local politicians, national politicians to solve these problems. We’ve seen this story unfold so many times in the UK, particularly in the north of England. It doesn’t have to be like that. What we’re doing at Sellafield proves the point.”

All this is being done while Sellafield Ltd undertakes a drive to deliver more value to the taxpayer. “By changing the way we do things on the site, by changing our organisation and our structure and by working with our partners more, involving our local supply chain and our wider national and even international supply chain better, we’re delivering more value for money than ever before and driving better performance than ever before,” he says.

He adds: “Transforming a business like Sellafield Ltd isn’t easy.  We are tasked with solving one of the most complex engineering challenges on the planet, it’s difficult but we’re doing it. It’s that transformation which is helping us to achieve these efficiency savings and deliver more value for money for the taxpayer.

“At the same time, it’s not just about money; we’re performing better than we’ve ever performed, our safety record is better than it’s ever been and we’re doing all of that in the midst of a transformation programme. That programme is helping us to achieve those improvements and it’s helping us be fit for the future. Sellafield is the original ‘northern powerhouse’ and as our business  changes we’re set to continue delivering uniquely important national missions that nobody else is capable of .”