Hansard on Nuclear Waste, Debate, 20th May 2008

Tue, 20 May 08

*Adjournment Debate on military nuclear waste*

MPs debate Military Radioactive Waste

| Debate – Adjournment and General

The Ministry of Defence was working with the nuclear industry on
decommissioning of nuclear submarines, MPs argued today.

During a debate on military radioactive waste, Defence Minister Derek
Twigg highlighted his department's work in this area, adding that the
MOD's current and future liabilities amounted to less than 5 per cent of
the total UK waste inventory so it worked closely with the UK nuclear

Moreover, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority was being worked with to
produce a strategy in this area, the Minister went on to detail, adding
that the nuclear sector was highly regulated.

Opening the debate, Liberal Democrat Willie Rennie highlighted possible
problems with leakage from the nuclear submarine HMS Revenge, calling
for a decision on decommissioned nuclear submarines.

Military Radioactive Waste

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now
adjourn.-[Tony Cunningham.]

11.20 pm
Willie Rennie (Dunfermline and West Fife) (LD): I suppose I am still the
new boy in the House; last week, when Mr. Speaker offered me an
Adjournment debate this evening, I readily agreed-not realising that we
would be starting at 11.20 in the evening, but I am still grateful for
the opportunity to raise this important issue of military radioactive
waste management.

In April 2007, the Dunfermline Press, my local newspaper reported a
Ministry of Defence spokesman as saying:

"The seven submarines stored currently at Rosyth Dockyard are very well
maintained and monitored? They are in excellent condition and perfectly

Just one year later, that same newspaper's front-page headline screamed:

"’Graveyard' fear as sub's hull is holed".

It went on to describe the discovery of a fist-sized hole in the
decommissioned nuclear submarine, HMS Revenge, one of the four SSBN-ship
submersible ballistic nuclear- submarines currently stored at Rosyth
dockyard in my constituency.

With a certain amount of comedy, I would say, the MOD spokesman
attempted to reassure readers that there was little to worry about, as
it was microbial action and not rust that had caused the hole. Speaking
as a simple Fifer, I regard holes as holes and I am not really worried
about how they are caused; the point is that they are holes. I find it
difficult to accept, however, that in just a year, the submarine has
gone from being in "excellent condition" , well maintained and monitored
to having a fist-sized hole in it. I find that rather strange and

Rosyth dockyard has had a long association, stretching back to the '60s,
with nuclear-powered submarines. In fact, Rosyth was involved at the
very beginning of nuclear submarines, with HMS Dreadnought, Britain's
first nuclear sub, which set sail from Rosyth for Singapore on a 30,000
mile sustained high-speed run a week before I was born in 1967. She had
a major refit in the yard three years later. By 1984, the yard had
developed an expertise in nuclear sub refits and was chosen as the sole
location for refitting the fleet; two years later, extensive rebuilding
commenced to facilitate its new role.

In 1993, however, that decision was cruelly reversed. We all know about
the decision taken when Devonport was awarded the refit and refuelling
arrangements for the Trident submarine fleet and other submarines. That
was an attempt by the Conservative Government-I notice that no
Conservative Members are present-to save Conservative seats in the
south-west. I am glad to say that they failed miserably, as the
Conservatives were routed in the region by both the Liberal Democrats
and the Labour party.

Rosyth dockyard continues to have a role as the resting place for seven
nuclear submarines: the four Polaris SSBNs, HMS Resolution, HMS Repulse,
HMS Renown and HMS Revenge, and three SSNs, or ship submersible nuclear
submarines, HMS Churchill, HMS Swiftsure and the original HMS
Dreadnought. In fact, HMS Dreadnought has been resting in the non-tidal
basin of Rosyth for 25 years. Its fuel rods have been removed and it is
waiting for its final resting place. The total weight of all the
decommissioned submarines in Rosyth is almost 6,000 tonnes. These days,
the basin is quite a tranquil and peaceful place, just along from the
Qinetiq base in the Rosyth dockyard, and it is now also home to a pair
of nesting cormorants.

From the very beginning, Rosyth dockyard has had a close association
with the nuclear submarine fleet, but I have to say that it is an
association that, along with the disposal of the submarines themselves,
we wish would come to an end.

Dumping had been common practice in the 1950s and 1960s, and in the
1970s the Ministry of Defence planned to do the same with nuclear
submarines after they were defuelled. Opposition to that method grew in
the 1970s after worries were expressed about environmental risks, but
only after an intervention by the National Union of Seamen in 1982 was
the MOD stopped from dumping intermediate-level waste at sea. Opposition
was also growing in the United States, which found an alternative
solution for its nuclear submarines. Then, in the 1980s, the MOD agreed
to store the submarines temporarily at Devonport and Rosyth.

ISOLUS stands for "interim storage of laid-up submarines". The project
defines its role thus:

"Project ISOLUS is committed to the timely development and
implementation of a solution for the dismantling of the UK's defuelled
nuclear powered submarines which inspires public confidence, is safe,
environmentally responsible, secure and cost-effective."

The current process for nuclear submarines is described as defuel,
de-equip, and lay-up preparation, or DDLP. Defuelling involves the most
radioactive material on board the submarines. The fuel is removed and
transported by train to Sellafield in Cumbria, where it is stored.
De-equipping involves removing equipment that is classified for security
reasons, or which can be reused or disposed of. Lay-up preparation
involves the submarine, which still contains the nuclear reactor
compartment-which is similar in size to two double-decker buses-being
prepared for long-storage afloat. So far all that has been done at
Devonport and Rosyth, but in future defuelling will only be carried out
at Devonport.

I want to explain why further delay in finding a final solution for the
disposal of military nuclear waste is not an option, and why we need to
be expeditious in seeking a programme to dismantle the 11 decommissioned
nuclear submarines that we have in the United Kingdom. I know that more
are coming onstream in the near future. The United Kingdom currently has
27 nuclear-powered submarines, of which 14 have left naval service and
11 have been defuelled. As I have said, seven are at Rosyth. The other
four are at Devonport. The problem is that there is limited capacity for
the storage of decommissioned nuclear submarines in the United Kingdom.

An MOD spokesman told the Dunfermline Press:

"Our strategic capacity will run out by 2020 as more nuclear submarines
are being decommissioned."

However, I understand that the position is far more urgent, and that
capacity will run out by 2011, in only three years' time. It may be
possible to squeeze in a few more years and squeeze out a bit more
space, but that will only delay the inevitable need for a decision in
the near future. It is vital that we do not delay any more and for those
capacity reasons we urgently need a solution for the decommissioned

It is clear that the safe storage of nuclear waste is no longer a
technical issue. There is no requirement for the various studies to be
set deadlines that are decades into the future. As far as I know there
are no technical barriers to progress, and we therefore need to make
progress quickly. I see no reason why we cannot make a decision within
two years, and start the process soon after that. The dismantling of the
11 submarines that are currently decommissioned at Rosyth and Devonport
could begin in the very near future, which is something that my
constituents would greatly welcome.

The Americans have already dismantled 70 submarines, and have
semi-buried the reactors in Hanford in Washington state. The French have
also dismantled many of their submarines, using the same model as the
United States and storing them at a high-tech facility in Cherbourg.
Even the Russians, helped in part by the British Government, are
dismantling their submarines. In fact, I received a letter from a
Russian governor-which I think the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport
(Alison Seabeck) also received-asking whether we would consider allowing
the Russians to decommission our submarines. So the Russians are looking
abroad for opportunities in what they regard as their expertise. It is
my understanding that there is no technical reason why we have to wait
any longer. I suggest that the only real reasons for further delay are
purely political. That is not necessarily a bad thing. Politics has an
important role to play, but it can present significant barriers. What
the political process will allow us to do, however, is assess the pros
and cons, so we can be open and transparent with the public about what
the advantages and disadvantages would be. The second issue, therefore,
is that technical barriers do not exist, so we should progress as soon
as possible.

The third reason is the reactor cool-down period. After decommissioning,
it is normal to allow 18 months to enable the reactor to cool down, but
the Ministry of Defence policy is to wait for a further 30 to 60 years
as it believes it cannot reduce the volume, and therefore the risk, of
intermediate-level waste in reactors. This would, perhaps, have the
advantage of being timely for the new intermediate-level waste storage
facility that the Government want to, but have so far failed to,
provide. However, because of the nature of radioactivity in the
reactors, it has recently been proposed that the reduction returns will
not be as lucrative as first thought. So there now seems to be little
advantage in waiting because of the cool-down reason.

So far, I have cited three reasons why we need to act speedily to find a
final resolution to the matter. The final issue is cost. Nuclear safety
must always come first and before cost, but cost can become a
consideration when a range of safe options are being pondered. It is
certainly the case that the cost of storing the nuclear submarines
afloat will continue to rise the longer they are in the water. I have
already informed the House that a fist-sized hole has been discovered in
the ballast tank of HMS Revenge. While I am confident the good people at
Babcock will have the situation under control, I am also sure that the
maintenance regime will be stepped up a notch to make sure that
microbial action-not rust-does not create more holes in the nuclear
submarines. That improved maintenance regime will cost more money, as
does the ongoing storage at the invaluable facility of the Rosyth basin,
which is increasingly being considered for commercial opportunities.

What are the options? It is clear that we must dismantle the reactor
compartments in the submarines. We cannot wait any longer. We cannot
continue to store them afloat indefinitely at Devonport or Rosyth. The
options for dismantling are clear: Devonport and/or Rosyth. Due to
expense, security and nuclear standards, it may be possible to develop
only one facility for that purpose. I am not in a position to judge
whether Devonport or Rosyth would be the best location for that
facility, but I would like to make a few observations.

Devonport has the refit and refuel facility for the nuclear submarine
fleet. It is a first-class facility that will be utilised for the
Trident submarines, the Astute subs and the existing SSNs. That will
operate well into the 2050s and beyond. Whereas Rosyth has a very good
radioactive storage facility, it currently stores only low-level waste
resin that requires chemical decontamination before it is sent to Drigg.
It is also going through the process of decommissioning its nuclear
facilities. With Trident, Astute and the rest of the fleet, Devonport's
future is clearly with nuclear submarines, whereas Rosyth's is in ship
refit, design, engineering services and supply chain services. With
today's welcome announcement on the carriers, Rosyth is looking forward
to its economic future. Indeed, it has a healthy future, well beyond
that of the carriers

It seems logical, however, that together with the refuelling and
refitting should go the dismantling of decommissioned nuclear subs, but
that does not mean that the reactors would necessarily be stored whole
or in parts at Devonport. It does not have the space and is located
within a large conurbation, so it is not an appropriate long-term
location. Devonport, I would therefore suggest, is not the final storage
location for the dismantled nuclear reactors, but it could be involved
in the dismantling of the reactors in the interim phase.

I know that the people of Plymouth want to dispose of their
four-increasing to six, probably-decommissioned nuclear submarines as
much as we in Rosyth want to dispose of ours, so we need a sensible,
practical and cost-effective solution. If Devonport were chosen for such
a dismantling facility, transporting the seven submarines down from
Rosyth would be an issue. It would be logical to cut up the reactors and
transport them by rail to Plymouth, but that would involve moving the
waste under civilian regulations as opposed to military ones, the former
being much more stringent and therefore expensive and restrictive. The
Government should seek to change that. We should not be thwarted by
artificial regulations in our attempt to seek a rational and effective
system of final storage for the subs. If the regulations are not
changed, the only practical method of transporting the subs to Plymouth
would be by sea. My concern is that as the subs age, transporting them
to Plymouth will not be possible without considerable expense, and the
decision to develop a facility at Rosyth and Devonport will therefore be
made by default.

One of the key conclusions of an investigation by Project ISOLUS states:

"Afloat storage should be regarded only as a stop-gap measure pending
the development of an alternative strategy for interim storage".

The Ministry of Defence has come under considerable criticism from the
Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee, which described it as
having "no policy" on the future of decommissioned nuclear powered
submarines. Such criticisms doubtless also echo around Devonport, as
they do in Plymouth.

We want a final solution for these nuclear submarines. Now, the
Americans are also putting pressure on the MOD to come up with a
solution. They are aware of the international attention on nuclear
facilities and want the UK to come up with something sensible, along the
lines that they themselves have adopted, as have the French and the
Russians, as I have described.

I hope that the Minister understands how important this issue is for
Rosyth and for Plymouth. Both communities have lived and breathed the
Royal Navy over the years. The Royal Navy has received our support,
recruited our young men and women and benefited from our skilled work
force. In return, our communities have accepted the consequences of the
naval presence: high turnover of population, the sometimes rowdy
behaviour, and the nuclear legacy. However, now is the time for the
Ministry of Defence to recognise and live up to its obligations to our
communities. We need an early decision on the future of our
decommissioned nuclear submarines.

11.38 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Derek Twigg): I
congratulate the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie
Rennie) on securing this debate on the management of military
radioactive waste and on providing me with the opportunity to speak on
this issue. I am also pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for
Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck) is here. She takes a great interest
in these issues, is one of the most hard-working constituency MPs in the
House and is a great champion for Plymouth.

I have listened very carefully to the hon. Gentleman and begin by
assuring him that the Ministry of Defence fully accepts its
responsibilities regarding the need for effective management of the
radioactive waste it produces. The production of such waste is an
unavoidable outcome of the need to maintain vital military capability,
and we are fully committed to managing it in a safe and secure manner,
both now and in the future.

I understand the concerns that many people have about radioactive waste.
Some waste is clearly extremely hazardous if not handled appropriately,
and the management of waste is a long-term commitment. We must face up
to that commitment in a considered and robust manner and that is what we
are doing, which is why we continue to invest the resources necessary to
deliver practicable, sustainable solutions that will stand the test of
time. Radioactive waste is produced from a range of military activities
and is categorised in a range from very low-level waste to
intermediate-level waste-that is the highest category that the Ministry
of Defence holds.

Hon. Members will not be surprised to learn that the overwhelming
proportion of defence radioactive waste is produced by the nuclear
submarine and nuclear weapons programmes. There are also a number of
other sources of waste, such as medical radioactive sources, depleted
uranium ammunition and contaminated land. Our policies, processes and
plans address the requirements for managing all categories of waste,
whatever the source. The MOD is not alone in needing to manage
radioactive waste and used fuel, and defence material is managed in a
similar way to civil material. The MOD's current and future liabilities
amount to less than 5 per cent. of the total UK waste inventory, by
activity and by volume, so we play an active role in working with the UK
nuclear industry, other Government Departments and regulators to deliver
long-term waste management solutions for the UK as a whole.

It is not in either the MOD's or the UK's interests to adopt solutions
that diverge from those being developed by the Nuclear Decommissioning
Authority, which is why we are working closely with it to produce a
coherent and optimal strategy to meet our waste management policy. The
decommissioning and disposal of nuclear submarines, in particular the
management of the radioactive waste generated by that process, is a key
area of work for the MOD at this time.

In July last year, the MOD signed a contract for the delivery of new
facilities at Her Majesty's naval base Devonport for defuelling and
de-equipping submarines in preparation for their afloat storage. That
£153 million contract is scheduled to deliver in 2012, and will enable
the removal of more than 99 per cent. of the radioactive material from
submarines, in a way that meets the highest modern safety standards.
That material will then be placed in medium-term storage to a standard
that is at least as high as that for civil nuclear waste, and its
storage will be subject to statutory safety regulation by the Health and
Safety Executive. Low-level waste from operational submarines is
disposed of at the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority site near Drigg.
The remaining radioactivity after defuelling is secured within the
reactor compartments of submarines as they are maintained in afloat
storage at Devonport and at Rosyth dockyard.

The ISOLUS-interim storage of laid-up submarines-project was established
by the MOD in 2000 to deliver a sustainable solution for the interim
storage of nuclear submarines' intermediate-level radioactive waste over
the next 60 years. That is a complex matter, whereby we must consider a
range of factors including, as I have mentioned, the need to take
account of broader UK policy. The Committee on Radioactive Waste
Management recommended in 2006 that a programme of robust, safe and
secure long-term interim storage of intermediate-level waste was
required. The ISOLUS project has taken the Committee's recommendations
into account and, since its report was published, the project has been
able to take forward technical and siting issues. The present intention
is to store intermediate-level waste on land and to end the current
practice of afloat storage. Detailed options for land storage are being
considered in a technical options study that is expected to be completed
by the end of this year.

Radioactive waste is generated and stored at a number of locations
around the UK. I would like to reassure the House that when it is
necessary for material to be moved between the sites, safety and
security remain paramount at all times. Indeed, safety and security are
paramount across all aspects of the management of radioactive waste, and
the MOD is committed to complying with national policies in this area.
Defence activities, whether conducted directly by the MOD or by
contractors, are subject to safety and environmental legislation, where
it is applicable, and where such legislation does not apply to the MOD
we introduce standards and management arrangements that are, so far as
reasonably practicable, at least as good as those required by legislation.

The nuclear sector is, as one would expect, highly regulated. The bulk
of the MOD's activities relating to radioactive waste management fall
under the jurisdiction of statutory regulators-the HSE, including the
nuclear installations inspectorate, the Environment Agency, in England,
or the Scottish Environment Protection Agency. Where such activities are
not subject to statutory regulation, the MOD regulator, the Defence
Nuclear Safety Regulator, applies an equivalent regime, and in doing so
works closely with the statutory regulators.

I recognise that there is a great public interest in the MOD's
management of radioactive waste and we are committed to a policy of
openness and transparency so far as is possible, given the demands of
national security. Through measures such as the publication on the
internet last year of the MOD's radioactive waste disposal policy, we
aim to demonstrate that the MOD is a responsible nuclear operator and
owner. Project ISOLUS, for example, has already undertaken two major
public consultation exercises and has established the ISOLUS advisory
group, which has a broad membership and holds public meetings, to
provide independent scrutiny of the project. We will continue to engage
with interested parties throughout the decision-making process.

I am pleased to have been able to respond to the hon. Gentleman on this
important issue, and would like to reaffirm the MOD's commitment to
maintaining the highest standards of safety and security, through the
effective management of radioactive waste, both now and in the future.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fourteen minutes to Twelve o'clock.,___

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