Submarine dismantling – only half the story

Ministry of Defence video about the Submarine Dismantling Project

Consultation on the Ministry of Defence's Submarine Dismantling Project has now drawn to a close following a sixteen week programme of public meetings, conferences, and news stories.  Alongside a plethora of local councils and campaign groups, we here at Nuclear Information Service have given our views on how to deal with the dangerous and unwelcome legacy of the Royal Navy's radioactively contaminated out-of-service nuclear powered submarines (available for download below).

Although the Ministry of Defence deserves credit for seeking a broad range of views on how to tackle this issues, the questions that they didn't ask about submarine dismantling are at least as important as the ones they did ask.    

Removal of spent highly enriched uranium fuel rods from submarine reactors is easily the most risky part of the overall submarine dismantling process, yet defuelling operations have been excluded from the scope of the Submarine Dismantling Project.  Six submarines stored at Devonport Dockyard still contain spent fuel, and all submarines which subsequently leave service will also be defuelled at Devonport.   

Spent fuel removal poses significant risks to the public and the environment. On 10 August 1985 control rods were incorrectly removed from a Soviet 'Victor' class submarine during defuelling at Chazma Bay naval yard outside Vladivostok, resulting in an explosion, the release of large amounts of radioactivity, and ten deaths.

Devonport is the only location in the world where nuclear reactor fuelling and defuelling is permitted to take place in close proximity to a major urban area – the city of Plymouth – posing wholly unnecessary and unacceptable risks to the local population.  

Spent fuel will not only be removed from reactors at the Devonport Dockyard – it will also be stored there, at least for an interim period, before being transported to Sellafield for indefinite long term storage.  This raises questions about the safety of the fuel cycle and the lack of a long term strategy for management of spent submarine reactor fuel.  There has as yet been no public consultation on spent fuel management through the mechanisms of the submarine dismantling project, the Ministry of Defence Nuclear Liabilities Strategy, or any other route.    

A major factor behind the difficulties the Ministry of Defence is now facing in disposing of out of service submarines is the lack of consideration given to legacy and ethical issues at the time when the submarines were designed and built. Yet the Ministry of Defence is planning to repeat the same mistakes again by building further new nuclear powered submarines.   Six further 'Astute' class submarines are under construction or have been ordered, yet no consideration has been given to how to deal with the radioactive materials that will remain at the end of their life.

The Committee on Radioactive Waste Management has warned that Ministers should consider “the social, political and ethical issues of a deliberate decision to create new nuclear wastes”, yet this warning seems to have been unheeded.   The Ministry of Defence is doing a good job in giving the impression that if it buries its head deep enough into the sand, then all the risks, costs, and problems associated with decommissioning its nuclear legacies will disappear.


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