London: Tata Steel Ltd has started work on one of the two blast furnaces of its UK’s largest steelworks at Port Talbot in South Wales. The Blast Furnace 5, which has been running for the past 15 years producing almost 30 million tonnes of iron, is now being drained so vital engineering work can be carried out inside, extending its life by five to seven years, Tata Steel said Friday.

Once the heart of the furnace, which normally operates at more than 1,200 degrees Celsius, has cooled, skilled engineers will begin work to replace parts of the heat resistant interior and vital structural parts, Tata Steel said. The project, costing tens of millions of pounds and expected to take several months, will also see the waste gas and dust extraction system being replaced.

“This is the biggest single investment we have made at the Port Talbot site for more than five years and demonstrates our commitment to building a stronger and more sustainable steelmaking business in the UK now and in the future," said Bimlendra Jha, CEO of Tata Steel UK.

“This investment in Port Talbot is a huge vote of confidence in the workforce, and follows some other major investments which will help sustain the steel industry in the UK," said Alan Coombs, chair of the Port Talbot multi-union committee.

According to Tata Steel, extending the life of Blast Furnace 5 is a critical part of the company’s long-term strategy to strengthen its operations in the UK and will underpin improvements throughout its UK supply chain.

On Friday, project engineers began what is known as a salamander tap of the furnace. This involves a number of holes being drilled through the base of the furnace to fully drain the liquid iron. The operation is carried out remotely and it is expected it could take more than a day to remove all the remaining iron, the company said.

The investment at the Port Talbot plant was announced in June, when Tata Steel and Thyssenkrupp AG finalised a joint venture of their European operations. The Tata Steel Thyssenkrupp JV is Europe’s second-largest steelworks after NRI steel magnate Lakshmi Niwas Mittal-led ArcelorMittal.