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Recent “shock horror” articles about the extent of the Royal Navy’s retired nuclear sub fleet are not really news. No-one has been trying to hide the existence of this “ghost fleet” – after all you only have to take a look at Google Earth to see the dozen or so boats in Devonport sitting alongside in plain view (some of which are seen above), as well as the six in Rosyth (shown below, courtesy of Google Earth). Indeed, the topic has been the subject of press articles for a number of years.

In order to keep the boats in sufficiently good condition to remain safe, they are routinely dry-docked, inspected and painted where necessary. However, the process of actually removing the fuel rods and reactor can only be carried out one boat at a time. Babcock International now have the contract for this work, which they inherited from DML  – who took over the Dockyard after privatisation in 1987.

In view of the above, it makes little sense to blame the present defence secretary for the problem (as some reports have done), as the problem has been hanging around ever since the very first nuclear sub was taken out of service in 1980.  The first nuclear powered sub to enter service with the RN, the Dreadnought has been sitting at Rosyth Dockyard since 1980. She is still awaiting final disposal, albeit with a strong interest-group trying to get her returned to Barrow (where she was laid down in 1959), as a tourist attraction.

One nuclear sub, the Courageous (S50), shown above, is already a museum ship and is on display at Devonport.  She and Conqueror were the two boats sent down to provide protection for the British fleet during the Falklands War.  Laid up in 1992, Conqueror was not one of the first vessels to have her reactor removed – Valiant had already been stripped of her reactor and rods. However, the process was not carried out with a view to putting the vessel on public display afterwards and it ended up as a bit of a mess, unfit for public access or viewing. So Courageous was stripped in a somewhat more sympathetic manner – as may be seen if you visit her at the Devonport Naval Heritage Centre.

A number of other boats, such as Splendid, which was decommissioned in 2003, are still fully fuelled.  Sovereign and Spartan decommissioned in 2006 are in a similar condition, as well as another six boats at Devonport, which is the only site in the UK that can carry out the work of removing the reactor and fuel rods.  

Critics point to the fact that other nations seem to be able to dispose of nuclear subs much more quickly. The US has scrapped some 130 vessels, the Russians 190 or so, while the French have scrapped three boats. However, it is probably safe to say that the UK has extremely strict protocols governing such matters, while some other nations are rather more cavalier in their approach to nuclear safety.

Another major cause of delay has been the fact that the UK does not have an approved storage site for the waste nuclear material, including the spent fuel rods.  A plan to build a Geological Disposal Facility (GDF) has been on the cards for quite a while, but so far no-one has been able to persuade any community in the UK to have one their doorstep. Technically that should read “in their cellar” as the aim is to encase solid waste material in metal coffins far below ground in suitably stable and protective rock formations. Depending upon the geology of the area chosen, this might be many hundreds of yards below ground level. As may be imagined, this will not come cheap, with estimates starting at about £12bn.

The need for a UK disposal facility was formally identified in 1995, and in 2006 the Government accepted the Committee on Radioactive Waste Managements (CoRWM) recommendations that a long term disposal capability be established. However, as is evidenced by an Office for Nuclear Regulation update published in March 2019, the site has not even been chosen, and temporary measures are having to be extended yet again to deal with the problem of nuclear waste in the UK as a whole.

Another batch of nuclear subs is due to leave the service over the next decade.  Combined with the waste being produced by nuclear power-stations (which is going to increase as and when the new Somerset-site comes on stream), this is going to force the UK authorities to make a decision about the GDF. Otherwise we might end up with another half a dozen boats being docked in Devonport, making it host to  fleet comparable in size to the whole of the in-service Navy.

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