George Robertson, Secretary of State for Defence, announced yesterday that the Ministry of Defence is considering abandoning the medium-term strategy of keeping the decommissioned submarines afloat in Royal Navy dockyards.
There are already 11 of them at Devonport, Plymouth, and Rosyth near Edinburgh, including the old Polaris intercontinental missile vessels. With 15 nuclear submarines now in service, the number of out-of-action radioactive hulks is set to increase over the years, and the two docks will run out of space.
When nuclear-powered submarines are taken out of service the radioactive fuel rods are taken out of their reactors, which are then taken to British Nuclear Fuel's plant at Sellafield, Cumbria, for long-term storage.
But parts of the submarines are still radioactive, although next to no radiation escapes into the outside world. The MoD says they can be kept afloat indefinitely without any risk, provided they are regularly inspected and maintained.
Now it is considering interim land storage, which would involve cutting out the entire reactor compartment and storing it ashore in a guarded site.
The reactor compartments would take up less space than the submarines and there would be no leakage of radioactivity. The rest of the vessel would be cut up for scrap. Alternatively, the MoD might find other locations to keep them afloat.