Antinuclear

Australian news, and some related international items

What to do with dead nuclear submarines? A cautionary tale for Australia.

12 dead nuclear submarines in UK, and don’t they have pretty names?

Legacy. It is unacceptable to leave waste for future generations to deal with……

End game

To some extent, the Ministry of Defence is stuck in a vicious circle whereby the cost of storing submarines eats into the budget for their disposal. ………but the glacial pace of work …. is more concerning. There are always more pressing priorities for defence expenditure and the dismantling project has been continually delayed. In the meantime the nuclear and health and safety regulatory requirements that must be met are getting stricter, adding further costs. There is almost complete reliance on Babcock for UK submarine support activity and there is a very finite number of SQEP with nuclear expertise available to recruit in the UK.

Project to dismantle ex-Royal Navy nuclear submarines inches forward, Navy Lookout, 7 Feb 22.

There are currently 21 former Royal Navy nuclear submarines awaiting disposal, 7 in Rosyth and 14 in Devonport. Here we look at the process and the modest progress in efforts to dismantle them.

Kicking the can down the road ……….  Unfortunately, successive governments failed to make arrangements for the timely disposal of these boats. In a less environmentally conscious era, filling the boats with concrete and sinking them in the deep ocean was the original plan but the disposal of nuclear waste at sea was banned by the London Dumping Convention in 1983. Planning for the dismantling of these submarines should have been started at that time, but only in the last 10 years has there been a serious effort to grip the issue.

Over time the nuclear regulatory frameworks have become ever-more demanding than when the submarines were conceived. Stricter rules have added more complexity and cost to the dismantling process, ironically adding delays and increasing the amount of nuclear waste awaiting appropriate disposal. HMS Dreadnought decommissioned in 1980, has now been tied up in Rosyth far longer than she was in active service. In the civil nuclear industry, operators are required by law to put aside funds and make plans during the life of the plant to pay for decommissioning. It would be prudent if a similar principle was applied by the MoD to all new nuclear submarine construction.

Besides the attraction of deferring costs in the short-term, a major cause of delays has been the selection of a land storage site for radioactive waste. Low-Level Waste (LLW) is stored at Sellafield in concrete-lined vaults and in 2017 URENCO Nuclear Stewardship Ltd at Capenhurst in Cheshire was selected as the interim site for storing the more dangerous Intermediate Level Waste (ILW). The Reactor Pressure Vessels (RPV) removed from the submarines are classed as ILW and will temporarily be stored in purpose-built buildings above ground. They will eventually be moved to a permanent underground Geological Disposal Facility (GDF)

Afloat storage

While awaiting dismantling, decommissioned submarines are stored afloat in a non-tidal basin in the dockyard.  The 7 submarines in Rosyth have all had their nuclear fuel rods removed but of the 14 in Devonport, 10 are still fuelled. This is because in 2003 the facilities for de-fuelling were deemed no longer safe enough to meet modern regulation standards and the process was halted. Submarines that have not had fuel removed have the reactor primary circuit chemically treated to guarantee it remains inert and additional radiation monitoring equipment is fitted.

Apart from regular monitoring, once every 15 years each boat has to be dry-docked for a Survey and Docking Period (SADP) which involves hull inspection and preservation work.

Reasons to accelerate disposal

Cost. The expense of afloat storage and maintenance of decommissioned boats is rising – currently costing approximately £30M per year. Every further delay adds to this and will have to be funded from a defence budget that is much smaller in real terms than when the boats were ordered and built during the Cold War. The total disposal cost will be at least £3bn over 25 years and continue into the 2040s. (This is for the 27 boats listed above – Astute-class dismantling is not yet being considered.) All this effort and expense is a drain on precious MoD resources for zero operational gain with each delay adding to the cost.

Legacy. It is unacceptable to leave waste for future generations to deal with and it is simply common sense to dispose of old equipment at around the same time their replacements come online. Responsible care of the hulks afloat means they pose minimal risk to the environment or local population, but a tiny risk does remain. This makes some people living nearby uneasy and provides another grievance for those ideologically opposed to nuclear submarines and Trident. The minimal environmental hazard they pose is sometimes exaggerated by media, politicians and campaigners to suit their own agenda. The old boats are also a rather uncomfortable reminder of the time when the RN had an SSN force approximately double the strength it is today.

Space. When HMS Trenchant is moved to 3 Basin at Devonport for storage, the basin will be at its licensed capacity. Currently, the MoD only has permission from the nuclear regulator to store 14 boats. Approval to hold 16 will be needed in order to accommodate HMS Talent and Triumph when they decommission. Storing more boats in Rosyth is not an option because of limited space in the basin which is also used for civilian vessels as well as by the aircraft carriers to access the dry dock. Once the purpose-built disposal facility at Devonport is up and running in the early 2030s, it will be more efficient (and likely deemed politically less sensitive than anything in Scotland).

Progress at Rosyth

The Submarine Dismantling Project (SDP) finally started at Rosyth in December 2016, around 15 years behind schedule. A team of around 150 people are working on the site pioneering the two-stage process to remove radioactive waste. Swiftsure was the ‘pilot’ submarine for the project and stage 1 – the removal of LLW. This work was completed and the boat was sealed up and returned to afloat storage in the basin during August 2018. So far, 129 tonnes of mainly metallic LLW have been removed from Swiftsure and Resolution. Many of the older boats have asbestos lagging around pipes, which also has to be removed with exceptional care and disposed of in sealed containers. Stage 1 work on Resolution was completed on time in March 2020 and on budget.

Stage 1 work on Revenge started in March 2020 but was suspended on the 24th due to COVID lockdown and (almost) normal working was not resumed until June 2020……………..

Disposal at Devonport

Progress at Devonport is considerably behind that of Rosyth. The unplanned refuelling of HMS Vanguard added a six-month delay as Babcock engineers were diverted from the SDP to work on the more urgent SSBN refit. ………………..

End game

To some extent, the MoD is stuck in a vicious circle whereby the cost of storing submarines eats into the budget for their disposal. The modest progress at Rosyth in the last 5 years is encouraging but the glacial pace of work in Devonport is more concerning. There are always more pressing priorities for defence expenditure and the dismantling project has been continually delayed. In the meantime the nuclear and health and safety regulatory requirements that must be met are getting stricter, adding further costs. There is almost complete reliance on Babcock for UK submarine support activity and there is a very finite number of SQEP with nuclear expertise available to recruit in the UK.

Like so many problems in defence, the failure to dispose of the boats cannot be blamed on one person, government or company, rather a series of decisions made by many individuals that seemed justifiable at the time. There must be some sympathy for those working to deal with this legacy today, although the thrust of 2019 HoC Public Accounts Committee report on submarine disposal efforts can be summarised as saying “this is simply not good enough”.   https://www.navylookout.com/project-to-dismantle-ex-royal-navy-nuclear-submarines-inches-forward/

February 8, 2022 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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