Key Point: Dismantling and disposing of a nuclear sub is a complex process.
When you need to dispose of an old car, you can take it to a junkyard.
But what do you do with a nuclear submarine whose reactor can make people glow in a most unpleasant way?
Britain has retired twenty nuclear submarines since 1980. None have been disposed of, and nine still contain radioactive fuel in their reactors, according to an audit by Britain’s National Audit Office. These subs spent an average of twenty-six years on active service—and nineteen years out of service.
“Because of this, the Department [Ministry of Defense] now stores twice as many submarines as it operates, with seven of them having been in storage for longer than they were in service,” the audit states, back in 2019.
Even worse is the price tag. Britain has spent 500 million pounds ($646.4 million) maintaining those decommissioned subs between 1980 and 2017. Full disposal of a nuclear sub would cost 96 million pounds ($112.1 million). As a result, the total cost for disposing of the Royal Navy’s ten active subs and twenty retired vessels would be 7.5 billion pounds ($9.7 billion), NAO calculated.
Dismantling and disposing of a nuclear sub is a complex process. The nuclear fuel must be carefully removed from the reactor using special facilities. Then the submarine itself must be dismantled, again with extra care paid to removing the radioactive parts of the vessel. Just one contractor—Babcock International Group PLC—is “currently the Department’s sole supplier capable of undertaking most of the Department’s defueling and dismantling requirements,” noted NAO. “It owns the nuclear-licensed dockyards and facilities in both Devonport and Rosyth, and also provides aspects of the related projects.”
Fuel removal ceased in 2004 after British nuclear regulators found the removal facilities didn’t meet standards. Yet the Ministry of Defense still lacks a fully-funded plan for defueling.
All of this is taking a toll on a Royal Navy already underfunded and struggling to fund new ships. “The Department pays an estimated £12 million [$15.5 million] a year to maintain and store the nine fueled submarines currently stored in Devonport,” NAO found. “Maintaining fueled, rather than unfueled, submarines also presents additional technical uncertainties and affects dock availability. This has contributed to space pressures in Devonport, with the Department at risk of not meeting its commitment to inspect, clean and repaint stored submarines at least every 15 years, and not having space to prepare [the submarine] Torbay, which left service in 2017, for long-term storage. Until submarines are prepared, the Department must keep them partially crewed, potentially affecting the Department’s ability to redeploy its personnel.”
The plan is to begin defueling subs, beginning with HMS Swiftsure, in 2023. But even then, the Ministry of Defense will have to deal with different subs that have different disposal requirements. “At present, the Department does not have a fully developed plan to dispose of Vanguard, Astute and Dreadnought-class submarines, which have different types of nuclear reactor,” NAO pointed out. “For the Vanguard and Astute-class it has identified suitable dock space which, if used, will need to be maintained.”
Interestingly, the British military gets an exemption when it comes to nuclear waste. “Within the civil nuclear sector, organizations must consider nuclear waste disposal during the design stage of power stations and nuclear infrastructure. The Department does not have a similar obligation.”
Britain isn’t the only nation that has problems disposing of nuclear warships. The Soviet Union sank nineteen nuclear vessels, and fourteen shipborne nuclear reactors, at sea, sparking fears of an environmental catastrophe. Even the U.S. Navy is struggling with how to dispose of nuclear subs and aircraft carriers, such as the decommissioned carrier USS Enterprise.
This article first appeared in 2019 and is reprinted due to reader interest.