NIS Update: January 2011


Research by Greenpeace UK has revealed the extent to which the government intends to commit to contracts for the Vanguard submarine replacement programme before the next general election in 2015.  Information provided to Greenpeace under the Freedom of Information Act shows that the Ministry of Defence (MoD) intends to purchase a range of highly expensive long lead items for the submarines, including structural fittings for submarine hulls; propulsion systems; power generation systems; and various components of combat systems and ships services.

MoD has refused to reveal costs for the long lead items, claiming that final decisions will not be taken until after the forthcoming 'Initial Gate' decision on the replacement programme, and that disclosure of the information would compromise its ability to obtain value for money from contractors.  However, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament has estimated that around £2.1 billion of spending would be committed between Initial Gate and the general election.

The research by Greenpeace has raised concerns that by the time the 'Main Gate' stage of the Trident replacement programme is reached after the next election, so much will have been spent already and the contracts will have been drawn up so tightly that the decision will be a fait accompli.  A similar situation forced the Coalition government to purchase two aircraft carriers ordered by the previous government for the Royal Navy on the grounds that it would be cheaper than cancelling the contract for the unwanted second one.

The long lead items which MoD intends to purchase include major elements of the submarine body and its equipment.  For the first submarine these include items for both the propulsion system and the rest of the submarine, with advance orders for the propulsion system required for the second and third submarines.

The list of advance purchase items which the MoD intends to order includes:


  • Hull Structure and Structural Fittings – including castings and forgings, steel and control surfaces.


  • Primary and Secondary Propulsion Systems.
  • Electrical Generation, Conversion, and Distribution – including turbo generators, platform management system (software), main switchboards,internal communications, diesel generators, main static converters, main DC distribution – distribution convertors, cathodic protection system, degaussing system, computer information systems, main battery, and remote visual surveillance system.
  • Various components of the Combat Systems.
  • Ship Services – including the air purification system, chilled water plant, main hydraulics system, HP air bottles, submarine control console and atmosphere analyser system.



Two Ministry of Defence annual nuclear safety reports, released under the Freedom of Information Act, raise concerns that staff shortages and funding cuts may be posing risks to the public and the environment.

Assurance reports for 2006 and 2007, prepared by the Chairman of the Defence Nuclear Environment and Safety Board, who oversees safety in the naval nuclear propulsion and nuclear weapons programmes, have now been made public and are available on the MoD website.  Reports for 2008 and 2009 are due to be posted on the site by the end of January 2011.

The reports conclude that an acceptable standard of nuclear and radiological safety and environmental protection had been maintained in the operation and delivery of the MoD's nuclear programmes.  However, they note that “there are a number of issues which present risks to compliance, or to demonstrability of compliance, with SofS's [the Secretary of State's] Safety and Environment Policy Statement and which nuclear programme implementers should therefore regard as potentially significant risks to their programmes”.

Each report lists eleven significant issues which make it “increasingly difficult to continue to substantiate that the defence nuclear programmes are being managed with due regard for the protection of the workforce, the public and the environment”.  These issues include:



  • The lack of a decommissioning strategy for the MoD's nuclear assets and sites, and no funded plan for decommissioning and disposal of nuclear submarines, including adequate facilities to de-fuel them at the end of their service lives (see below).  The 2007 report concluded that “the key challenge will continue to be the allocation and sustainment of the funding to meet these defined liabilities”.


  • A shortage of suitably qualified and experienced personnel within the MoD, Royal Navy, and contractors, which was "one of the greatest challenges to the sustainable future of the defence nuclear programme".
  • Control of the quality of work, which was an area of growing concern.  In 2006 the report noted that: “Across the programmes, control of work generally falls below best practice, and has given rise to a number of events”, particularly at Devonport Royal Dockyard.  The situation was considered to have deteriorated further in 2007.
  • Inconsistent arrangements for the transport of nuclear weapons, special nuclear material, and submarine reactor fuel.  The use of recently delivered new convoy vehicles for the transport of both weapons and special nuclear material loads will partially address this issue, but “no proposal is forthcoming for reactor fuel transport”.
  • At AWE Aldermaston “the signalled delay for the new hydrodynamics facility increases the probability that additional activities will need to take place in existing elderly facilities.”  The 2006 report notes that “the Safety Justification Plan for the planned modification of the nuclear warhead (principally the Mk4A AF&F upgrade) is expected to be submitted in early 2007”, confirming that AWE is currently engaged upon an upgrade programme to the UK's arsenal of Trident nuclear warheads.

The reports suggest that, even before the spending squeeze on Whitehall, cuts in funding were hampering the MoD's ability to ensure good safety performance.  "Often, in government, the management approach is to first impose a reduction in resource, and only then to assess its implications," Rear Admiral Guild stated, sounding the alarm for future safety standards in the MoD's nuclear programme.


A shortlist of sites for the storage of radioactive waste from redundant nuclear powered submarines has been dropped from the latest phase of consultation on the Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) for the Ministry of Defence's Submarine Dismantling Project.

Civil servants from the MoD visited local authorities in the vicinity of potential storage sites early last year to discuss the storage of waste from submarines locally, but the current round of consultation makes no mention of named locations and says only that the waste will be stored at an existing nuclear site.

The decision to exclude a list of potential storage sites from the consultation document is an indication of the sensitivity of radioactive waste disposal as a political issue, and the difficulties that the Ministry is likely to face in selecting a storage site.

To date, 16 nuclear-powered submarines have left naval service. Seven are stored afloat at Rosyth and the remaining nine are at Devonport, where five are awaiting removal of the reactor fuel.  Each submarine contains a reactor compartment which is about the size of two double-decker buses and is heavily contaminated with radioactivity.  Storage capacity at Devonport is expected to run out around 2020, and the cost of maintaining the redundant submarines is increasing significantly as they age and the number of submarines leaving service increases.

Under both European law and UK legislation a strategic environmental assessment is required for major programmes which are expected to have an environmental impact.

The current round of consultation on how to dispose of the submarines – the second of three phases of consultation – is limited to certain government bodies and will determine the scope of the SEA for the Submarine Dismantling Project.  The consultation asks for views on the following issues:

  • How best to dismantle nuclear powered submarines which have reached the end of their service lives;
  • Where best to dismantle the submarines;
  • Where best to store the Intermediate Level Radioactive Waste from the submarine reactor compartment;
  • The role industry will play in the project.

Two candidate sites for removal of radioactive parts from the submarines have been identified –  Devonport Royal Dockyard in Plymouth and Rosyth Royal Dockyard in Fife – and the criteria used to select these sites have been published as part of the consultation process.  However, no sites are named as potential locations for storing the intermediate level waste resulting from the dismantling process, even though a provisional list of storage sites was drawn up at an earlier phase of the project.

The consultation documents state that possible existing storage sites are owned by the MoD, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) and by commercial nuclear operators, and MoD intends to develop a list of possible storage sites from these alternatives.  Current practice in the civil nuclear sector is that intermediate level waste is stored where it is generated but, alarmingly, the Ministry of Defence states that “the NDA have challenged this position in their latest draft Strategy and are exploring opportunities to share current and planned storage facilities”, raising the prospect that the long-standing principle that radioactive waste should be stored where it is generated will be ignored.  The documents go on to warn that such a strategy “ is not sufficiently mature to support the screening of potential candidate sites”, highlighting the difficulties the Ministry is facing in deciding what to do with the waste which will be generated from dismantled submarines.

The consultation report also proposes three main options for dealing with the reactor compartment – the large central ‘slice’ of the submarine which houses the nuclear reactor. These are:

  • Cut out and store the entire reactor compartment, which is the least invasive solution in the short-term and is current practice in the USA, Russia and France.
  • Partially dismantle the reactor compartment to extract the reactor pressure vessel and store it intact. Other radioactive waste in the compartment would be removed and packaged for interim storage.
  • Fully dismantle the reactor compartment in situ, remove low level waste, and package the intermediate level waste into containers for storage.

The main difference between these options is when the nuclear reactor would be dismantled and the radioactive waste packaged for final disposal.  Storing the reactor compartment or pressure vessel would mean deferring the full processing and packaging of intermediate level waste until the proposed national repository for radioactive waste becomes available, which will not be before 2040 at the earliest, passing the economic and radiological costs on to future generations.

Consultation with the wider public on the Strategic Environmental Assessment for the Submarine Dismantling Programme will not take place until the second half of 2011, with the risk that it will be seen by some as merely an exercise in rubber-stamping decisions already made by government agencies following earlier phases of consultation.


The Ministry of Defence has confirmed that part of the reactor equipment from the nuclear powered submarine HMS Trenchant is being cut up at the Devonport naval dockyard in Plymouth.  The reactor pressure vessel closure head from the submarine was removed during a refit at Devonport in 2001 and is now being cut into smaller pieces.

Local campaigners are concerned that the move is part of a campaign to soften opposition to a long-term project to dismantle decommissioned submarines at Devonport, and there were protests two years ago when it was revealed that a similar 28-ton irradiated reactor part from HMS Victorious was being sliced into smaller pieces at the dockyard.

According to the MoD two similar sections from HMS Talent and HMS Vigilant are at Devonport "awaiting disposal", although arrangements are "not yet finalised".  MoD maintains that cutting up the head on site at Devonport is the best option prior to disposal of the contaminated metal.

Devonport, along with Rosyth in Fife, has been identified as a possible site for dismantling redundant nuclear submarines (see above).



Robin McGill, Chief Executive at the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE), and Andrew Kershaw, the Establishment's Director of Finance and Information Technology, have both resigned from their posts at AWE plc.   The two men left their posts at the end of last year, but the news was only reported in the local media earlier this month.

Chief Executive Robin McGill joined AWE in the spring of 2009, with his spell at the helm of AWE lasting barely 18 months.  Unusually, he was appointed to AWE from a post outside the consortium of companies that operate AWE, having been a senior executive with the BP oil company and Chief Executive of the Institute of Engineering and Technology before joining AWE.

Mr McGill led a high profile organisational change programme to modernise work practices at AWE and diversify AWE plc's work away from reliance on the nuclear weapons programme.  The changes were not welcomed by all at AWE, and at the end of last year members of the trade union Prospect took industrial action in protest at plans to reform pay arrangements.

Andrew Kershaw joined  AWE at the end of 2008 from CityWest Homes Ltd where he was Director of Finance, and brought extensive experience of working on Public Private Partnership and Private Finance Initiative projects to AWE.

Infrastructure Director Dr Andrew Jupp, an insider with more than 25 years experience at AWE, has now been appointed to take the helm at AWE with immediate effect.  Dr Jupp has been appointed as acting Managing Director of AWE – the title the post held before Mr McGill took over.


The Environment Agency has issued a Warning Letter to AWE plc following contamination of the Burghfield Brook in February 2010 as a result of construction activities at AWE Burghfield.  Routine monitoring of surface water discharges by the Agency revealed that the effluent had a higher than consented pH level.  The consent issued to AWE specifies that discharges into the Burghfield Brook should  have a pH value of no less than 6 and no more than 9, but the pH measured for the discharge was 9.7.  This is the second occurrence of a discharge with an elevated pH for the Burghfield construction area, with a similar incident having occured in December 2009.  Following the two pollution incidents the Environment Agency conducted an audit of AWE's construction sites and environmental management plans with the aim of reducing the risk of any further incidents.

AWE received a second Warning Letter on 30 November 2010 for failing to provide information summarising discharges to the atmosphere in a routine statutory return.

By continuing to use the site, you agree to the use of cookies. More information

The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this.