NISSAN has opened a £200m electric car battery plant in Sunderland as the Japanese manufacturer gears up to lead the next revolution in motoring, The Northern Echo can reveal.
The launch of its first lithium-ion battery factory in Europe is a bold step for the car maker and a huge accolade for its North-East workers who will soon begin making the all-electric Leaf hatchback.
Nissan has remained tight-lipped about developments at the high tech battery plant, which sits beside its main production site. Plans were in place to make a formal announcement about its opening to tie in with the launch of the Leaf this spring.
The veil of secrecy over the project means that Nissan has declined all requests to take photographs inside the facility to prevent rival car makers from seeing the process. But a company spokesman confirmed on Tuesday that production has now started with about 200 workers operating the line that will eventually be capable of making 60,000 battery packs per year.
The batteries are being made in a specially controlled clean room environment to prevent contamination from dust and other pollutants.
The company will spend a total of £420m on plant, state-of-the-art machinery and robotics to make up to 50,000 Leafs a year in Sunderland, employing 560 workers. The project has been backed by cash from the government's flagship regional growth fund.
Sluggish sales of the Leaf, which was named 2011 European Car of the Yea, has not deterred Nissan's global chief Carlos Ghosn from committing hundreds of millions of pounds to the development of electric cars. However, Mr Ghosn has been forced to back peddle on bold predictions he made in 2011 that Nissan and sister company Renault would sell as many as a half-million electric vehicles a year by the end of the decade.
To boost sales in the US, where the manufacturer is opening an electric car plant in Tennessee, Nissan has slashed the price of a Leaf by £4,000.
The firm is expected to launch an aggressive marketing campaign to ensure the Sunderland-built Leaf, which will be a more advanced version of the model that has been produced in Japan since 2010, wins customers across Europe.
The launch of the battery plant comes as Nissan continues to recruit skilled workers to help make several new models in the North-East including the £35,000 Infiniti premium hatchback, a new version of the popular Qashqai, and a compact car - provisionally named the Nissan Invitation.
Staff numbers at the plant are expected to soar to 6,400 by 2015.