The Undoing of Alcan: How 40 years of smelting ended

There had always been something uniquely local about the searing smelting furnace at Alcan. The tracks use the port. Most of the workforce live on the doorstep. Even the coal, at one point, came from the Ashington Coal Company.

It was, until the time of writing, an industrial giant: the biggest private sector employer in Northumberland, contributing an estimated £60m to the regional economy and supporting as many as 3,000 jobs in the supply chain.

But in the end, it was its roots that proved to be its undoing. Not because of the workforce, nor because of the infrastructure. But according to Rio Tinto, which owns it, because of the coal.

A carbon tax due in Britain in 2013 will add tens of millions to its costs, when it is already running at marginal profit. There was a time when the management were willing to tough it out: a £28m investment signalled their intention to take on cheaper, more carbon-friendly competitors across the world. But not any more. Rio Tinto made more than $15bn in underlying earnings last year and yet still went ahead with the decision to switch off the power at the smelter. Any potential buyer would now have to stump up millions of pounds to restart it. From Rio Tinto, the best the workers can hope for is some help in changing for the future.

"For now, we're concentrating all our efforts on mitigating the impact on the communities and of course our employees, but in due course we work with the county council and the local enterprise partnership to try stimulate the economy in South East Northumberland and bring some more jobs here."

– John McCabe, Rio Tinto

The GMB Union hopes the power station part of the plant will be sold, protecting more than 100 jobs. But about 515 workers at the smelter will be out of work by the end of the year. The history of the smelter may be over, but their story to find new jobs in new industries now really begins.