Photo: HMS Ambush before launch at the Barrow Wet Dock Quay. Credit: BAE Systems
The launch of the Navy's latest nuclear powered submarine has been blocked by the government's nuclear safety regulator because of concerns about the structural integrity of a dock quay at the shipyard where the submarine is under construction.
The Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) has placed a 'hold point' on the launch of HMS Artful, the third of the Astute class hunter-killer submarines until BAE Systems is able to demonstrate that the Wet Dock Quay at its Barrow-in-Furness shipyard, where the UK's nuclear powered submarines are built, is safe to use.
BAE Systems had previously planned to launch Artful this year but now says that the launch is scheduled for early in 2014, although it is unclear whether the delay is related to the condition of the quay.
ONR requires the operators of nuclear licensed sites to provide assurance that ageing assets are being adequately managed to allow their continued use, and in the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear crisis has ordered operators to undertake studies and improvement works to ensure that nuclear infrastructure can be used safely as it grows older.
ONR's concerns about the Wet Dock Quay came to light in its latest quarterly report on the Barrow shipyard. According to the report "ONR placed a hold point on the launch of the next Astute-class submarine which will only be removed once the licensee can address and justify the continued use of the ageing wet dock quay". BAE Systems must now investigate the structure of the quay and prepare a formal justification report to satisfy ONR that it remains safe to use.
"Recent surveys have indicated that there may be some deterioration in its structure," said an ONR spokeswoman. "Until BAE Systems' investigations have been completed, ONR cannot say whether there will need to be a major programme of work. However, in the interim, ONR has placed a hold on launch of the next submarine so that we will have to be satisfied that the structure remains fit for purpose."
A spokesman for BAE Systems said: “We do not expect this to delay the launch of the next Astute class submarine, which is scheduled for early next year. As always, if any work is required to the Wet Dock Quay, safety will be a priority.”
Although BAE Systems is hoping to achieve its current target date for launch of the submarine, it is likely that ONR will require further structural improvement work to the Wet Dock Quay to take place after this.
After construction in the Devonshire Dock Hall at Barrow, new submarines are rolled out onto the Wet Dock Quay at Barrow and then lowered into the Devonshire Dock for dive testing and reactor power range testing before commencing sea trials.