• April 5, 2019

Ten years after Celtic League highlighted the dangerous nuclear legacy of the United Kingdom’s obsolete nuclear submarines the problem remains intractable according to a new critical report from the United Kingdom National Audit Office (NAO).

The NAO say that no nuclear submarines commissioned have been safely decommissioned since 1980:


Twenty hulks are still stored at Rosyth in Scotland and Devonport in England. Various plans have been mooted for long term storage including one to use the old nuclear power station site at Chapelcross in SW Scotland. Another involves storing the reactors long term in ponds at Sellafield but this itself is problematic as the storage ponds themselves are the source of controversy.

In April 2009 we correctly predicted that 20 obsolete submarines would have accumulated awaiting disposal by now saying:

“Decommissioning is a complex and costly process with inherent risks from leakage and contamination.

“When nuclear submarines are decommissioned, they are docked afloat. Any non radioactive components are stripped out for scrap or re-used. The reactor is left to cool and decrease in radioactivity for up to 18 months to two years. The fuel core is then removed (around 200-220kg of highly enriched uranium-235) and stored in cooling ponds at the dockside for a further period of about six months before being taken by rail to BNFL Sellafield . The spent fuel cores are too contaminated to reprocess, so they are stored in special cooling ponds indefinitely. The Navy say they can be reprocessed, but as yet there are no facilities to do this (and not likely to be). They must be stored in controlled conditions for ever.

“The reactor left on board the submarine remains intact (apart from the removal of the spent fuel modules). It is highly radioactive and classified as Intermediate Level Waste. The estimated amount of ILW is 850 tonnes per vessel (a large tonnage of waste is already accumulated at both Devonport and Rosyth). ILW include radioactive carbons, tritium, cobalt-58, zirconium-95, and cobalt-60. The radioactive coolant is also left on board as processing this through the ion-exchange system normally undertaken during refit would only give workers unnecessary doses of radiation. The ‘removable’ radioactive waste is around 160 tonnes.

“Other toxic and environmentally harmful waste substances to be removed include CFC’s, PCB’s, heavy metals, plastics, acids, diesel sludge, oil deposits and lubricants.

“It is unclear at this stage if the plans to concentrate waste at Devonport will be realised both government and potential contractors who would process the waste and `maintain’ the mouldering hulks are tight-lipped.

“What the latest developments do indicate is that the British government and MOD still see the Celtic countries or areas immediately adjacent to them as suitable sites for dangerous waste.

“It also indicates that the problem of what to do in the long term with these toxic time bombs remains unresolved.

“The UK government originally planned to get rid of its redundant nuclear submarines via deep water disposal. It was originally planned that submarine hull and reactors would be simply scuttled (probably in an existing deep water repository 400 miles to the south west of Ireland) but through international treaty that has been banned”

(Source: Celtic League YAHOO NEWS archive file – 20/4/2009)
Image: Decommissioned nuclear submarines at Rosyth, Scotland.

Bernard Moffatt

Celtic League Military Monitoring

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