Submarine Dismantling Project – What Next?

A Ministerial announcement on the site selected by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) for the storage of intermediate level radioactive waste in the form of dismantled Reactor Pressure Vessels from nuclear powered submarines is expected in Summer 2016.

The announcement will bring to an end the sixteen year public consultation process for the MoD's Submarine Dismantling and Waste Storage Project (SDP). The consultation  represents the first opportunity that the public ever have had to challenge MoD decisions on nuclear issues before they have been made.  MoD's usual practice of 'Announce and Defend' was dropped in favour of public consultation on options for managing radioactive wastes from decommissioned submarines in recognition of the general public interest in what happens to the wastes, especially in Plymouth and Rosyth where out-of-service submarines are currently held in storage afloat.

While some of the submarines are ready for dismantling, a pressing issue for the MoD, regulators from the Office for Nuclear Regulation and the Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator, and the City of Plymouth council is the defuelling of spent fuel in the reactors of six of the submarines.  Defuelling – the riskiest part of the decommissioning process, which was not addressed in the Submarine Dismantling Programme consultation – will take place when the necessary facilities have been constructed and enter into service at Devonport Dockyard.  All submarines stored at Rosyth in Scotland have been de-fuelled and are awaiting dismantling .​

The current disposition of the 27 submarines​ included in the Submarine Dismantling Project is as follows:

  • 4 Vanguard Class SSBNs (Ship Submarine Ballistic Nuclear) which carry Trident inter-continental nuclear warheads on Trident missiles are still in service.
  • 4 Trafalgar Class SSNs (Ship Submarine Nuclear) hunter killer nuclear powered submarines that do not carry any nuclear weapons are still in service.
  • 3 Trafalgar Class SSNs (Ship Submarine Nuclear) hunter killer nuclear powered submarines are now out of service and are awaiting decommissioning at Devonport.
  • 6 Swiftsure Class SSNs (Ship Submarine Nuclear) hunter killer nuclear powered submarines are out of service and in storage at Devonport and Rosyth in Scotland, with those at Devonport awaiting decommissioning.
  • 4 Resolution Class SSBNs that carried Chevaline nuclear warheads on Polaris missiles are all decommissioned, defuelled and in storage afloat at Rosyth.
  • 6 pre 1992 SSNs are all defuelled and in storage afloat, located at both Devonport and Rosyth.

Public feedback from the SDP consultation was published by MoD in the summer of 2015.  Following the Ministerial decision later this year MoD and its contractors will apply for the necessary regulatory permits and construct the necessary decommissioning facilities before commencing work to decommission a 'demonstrator' submarine to pilot the dismantling process.  

Declaration of interest: Nuclear Information Service participated in the Ministry of Defence Submarine Dismantling Project consultation as a consultee.  Di McDonald, Board member of Nuclear Information Service, is a member of the Advisory Group for the Ministry of Defence Submarine Dismantling Project.

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