Tata Steel's £185m Blast Furnace No 4 starts up
One of the biggest private employers in Wales has delivered a boost by beginning production at its new £185m blast furnace in Port Talbot.
The project to rebuild the No 4 furnace at Tata Steel is the most significant investment in the UK's largest steelworks.
First Minister Carwyn Jones called it "a significant long-term investment".
Welsh Secretary David Jones said it signalled Tata's commitment to the future of steel making in Wales.
Early tests on the furnace have been carried out and it will be fully working by the end of the week.
Karl Köhler, chief executive of Tata Steel's European operations said: "This rebuild has been a flagship investment, part of our strategy for long-term competitiveness in UK, EU and worldwide markets.
When Tata first announced that it was going to invest in a new blast furnace two-and-a-half years ago, it was a quiet time for the industry and so considered a good time for a major engineering project.
The big problem for Tata is that the quiet time has lasted much longer than anyone thought.
The backdrop to the entire construction project has been financial, and latterly, major job losses.
It was only in November that managers actually confirmed that it would be switched on at the beginning of the year.
But it should provide a huge boost to the thousands of Tata steelworkers both in Port Talbot, and at Llanwern in Newport.
"The efficiency and sustainability of the new furnace will also make a major contribution to our efforts to create an 'all-weather' company in Europe.
"We have been able to take advantage of a period of low steel demand to carry out this major engineering project and we are still operating today in an intensely challenging commercial environment.'Great pride'
"Restarting the furnace will help us improve our delivery performance which will enable us to better serve our customers, but we will continue to manage our output at levels appropriate to market conditions."
The news comes at a difficult time for the steel industry. The Port Talbot plant is in the middle of its biggest round of job losses in more than 20 years with 600 being cut across south Wales.
But the new furnace means production capacity at Port Talbot will double to make it capable of making more than four million tonnes of steel a year.
The old blast furnace was decommissioned in July last year before being completely rebuilt, incorporating the latest technology to improve energy efficiency, environmental performance, safety standards and capacity.
It has taken four months to complete, as part of a £240m investment in the site, including more than £50m on upgrading the steel-making shop.
It was also the UK's largest industrial engineering project last year.'Difficult global markets'
First Minister Carwyn Jones said: "This represents a significant long-term investment in the plant and we will continue to work closely with Tata to ensure a bright, sustainable future for the facility.
"Tata Steel has faced a challenging trading environment, but this news shows the company's continued belief in its Welsh workforce."
Welsh Secretary David Jones said: "There is no denying the challenges that steel companies like Tata are facing in difficult global markets.
"During my recent meeting with the company's senior executives and union representatives in Port Talbot, we were able to discuss how government and the organisation can work together to ensure Tata' s UK operations can remain competitive.
"The restarting of the furnace will go some way towards that aim, and I look forward to making a return visit to Port Talbot to see it in full operational mode in the near future."Lifting and excavating
Tata, which employs about 7,500 in Wales, said it would it to continue to meet the demanding requirements of UK and European manufacturing industries.
The molten iron from the furnace will be converted into steel for a wide range of customers, including those in the construction, automotive, lifting and excavating, domestic appliances and packaging.
End Quote Karl Köhler Tata Steel chief executive
This rebuild has been a flagship investment, part of our strategy for long-term competitiveness in UK, EU and worldwide markets”
General secretary of the Community trade union and chair of the UK trade unions' steel committee, Michael Leahy, said: "The project's completion is a source of great pride and hope for the future of steelmaking in the UK.
"The blast furnace project created many jobs for local contracting firms, providing a real boost to the south Wales economy at a difficult time.
"Longer term, the rebuilt furnace marks the start of a new era of sustainable steelmaking in the UK."
Aberavon MP Dr Hywel Francis welcomed the re-start of the furnace.
"It is a clear and unequivocal sign from Tata Steel that it continues to have faith in the long-term future of the plant.
"It is to the credit of the local management and unions and the whole workforce that they have won the confidence of Tata Steel Europe."