Exclusive: Cuts cast doubt on Yorkshire £25m nuclear research unit

FRESH doubt has been cast on Yorkshire's ambition to grab a central role in British nuclear manufacturing after it emerged that a planned £25m research centre could fall victim to a new round of Government cuts.

Earlier this year Lord Mandelson, then Business Secretary, visited South Yorkshire to announce massive investment in the region as part of Labour aspirations to lead the world in low-carbon energy production.

One of two measures unveiled by the peer in March was an 80m loan to Sheffield Forgemasters for a massive new press to make components for the world's "next generation" of nuclear power stations.

Second was the announcement of a Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (NAMRC) on the border of Sheffield and Rotherham.

Now just weeks after the Forgemasters loan was scrapped by the new coalition Government, the Yorkshire Post has learnt that funding for the research centre is also under threat.

Plans for the facility, at Catcliffe, near the M1, have just been passed by Rotherham Council, but regional development agency Yorkshire Forward, which has committed 7m to the project, will not now guarantee funding.

The agency, which faces abolition, recently announced cuts totalling 40m and said projects such as the NAMRC were now also under review as part of the new Government's drive to cut the national deficit.

A spokesman said: "We want to see the project go ahead, but we can't say what funding will be available because we don't know if we will get any further cuts as part of October's spending review.

"We don't know what budget we will have and while there has been no official announcement to stop funding on the NAMRC, it is not possible to say that the 7m will be available."

Forgemasters was originally announced as a major industry partner for the centre, along with industry giants Westinghouse and Rolls-Royce. Sheffield and Manchester universities are also involved.

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is the second major funder of the centre, and Lord Mandelson committed 15m of Government cash to the project.

Other funding is due to come from European Regional Development Fund, EDF Energy and the North West Regional Development Agency, which is in a similar position to Yorkshire Forward.

Last night Sheffield MP Clive Betts said the loss of funding for the NAMRC would be a "major blow, not just to Sheffield and South Yorkshire but to the whole of the British economy".

Mr Betts, who has led calls for a probe into why the Forgemasters loan was scrapped, added: "Bearing in mind what has happened recently, I would not be surprised if the funding was cut.

"But we haven't got the skills that other countries have got, so it is vital that we skill ourselves and make sure that we are going to be at the forefront of the nuclear manufacturing industry.

"What is not clear is whether the uncertainty is purely over Government spending and the forthcoming review, or whether it is also because people are a bit anti-nuclear in the new Cabinet.

"What is clear is that nobody has thought through what will happen when Yorkshire Forward is abolished, and nobody has given proper consideration of the issues surrounding the investment in nuclear. We have to plan for the long term, and for that reason we should be arguing for investment in nuclear power for the future."

Research centre spokesman Tim Chapman said work was continuing "apace" to prepare for the building of the centre, but if funding was cut the whole project would be affected.

He added: "We are as confident as anybody is at the moment and we are delivering all the targets that have been put in place for us. Planning permission has just been granted.

"It's not possible to give a definitive answer as to what would happen if funding was not forthcoming. It may be that we would continue in some form, but we would obviously have to scale back some of the building and site development."

A spokesman for Forgemasters was unable to say what involvement the company would have in the centre if it went ahead, but said it still planned to pursue other nuclear projects.