Atom waste grows as submarines rot

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The Independent Online
DANGEROUS radioactive waste is piling up secretly in two British ports, as the country's ageing nuclear submarines are retired.

Eight of the boats are moored indefinitely in two 'nuclear graveyards' at Devonport in Plymouth and Rosyth on the Firth of Forth, and today the Independent on Sunday publishes the first maps pinpointing them.

A special investigation has revealed that the two nuclear sites contain seven and a half highly irradiated reactor cores, 43 packages of extremely toxic nuclear 'crud', and eight radioactive submarines - including HMS Conqueror, which sank the Argentinian cruiser General Belgrano in the Falklands War.

Each site is within a mile of houses and near schools and playing fields.

The local council at Rosyth has formally complained to ministers that it is not given details of the more dangerous waste, and the Government's official radiation inspectors say that much of it is outside their jurisdiction.

Yesterday Prince Andrew bade a ceremonial farewell to a ninth nuclear submarine - HMS Resolution, the first of the Polaris missile fleet to enter service - consigning it and its wastes to storage at Rosyth.

Yet the Government has no plans to treat or dispose of any of the waste the submarines have produced. A spokesman for the Ministry of Defence said last week: 'Ministers are kept constantly aware of the situation, but we are very much in a 'wait and see' situation.'

Much of the waste, on present plans, will be kept at the ports until at least 2010. Experts expect several more submarines to enter the graveyards in the next five years.

Last night Dr David Clark, the opposition defence spokesman, said that he would write to the Defence Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, to voice his concern at the results of the Independent on Sunday's investigation. He said: 'Nuclear waste has been allowed to build up near the centre of these two ports through chronic inaction and lack of foresight, and the Government seems happy for local residents to be exposed to the danger indefinitely.'

Ministers have no policy for dealing with Britain's defunct, radioactive submarines.

Dreadnought, the first of Britain's atom-powered submarines has been tied up to the dockside at Rosyth for 12 years. Churchill joined it in 1990 and Swiftsure in 1992, while Revenge is in a nearby dry dock being prepared for what the Defence Ministry calls 'storage afloat'.

Conqueror, Warspite and Courageous have all been moored in a dock at Devonport during the last four years, and Valiant, taken out of service this summer, is waiting to join them.

This extraordinary cold storage of 'hot' subs has been allowed to develop because little thought was given, when they were built, as to what to do with them when retired.

Six years ago, a senior civil servant at the Ministry of Defence, Mr J Peters, told the House of Commons Select Committee on Defence: 'The Admiralty decided - God bless it - to go into nuclear propulsion for submarines in the early 1950s . . . There were quite enough problems to contemplate at that time without thinking too much about what on earth we should do with it when we were finished with it.'

When the Ministry did get round to thinking about disposal, it decided to fill the submarines with concrete and sink them in the north-east Atlantic.

This plan was frustrated when in 1983 - before any of the boats could be scuttled - public concern led to a worldwide ban on the disposal of nuclear waste at sea by the London Dumping Convention. But the Government did not abandon its policy until last February, when it reluctantly accepted that sinking the submarines would never be possible under international law.

The Ministry told the Independent on Sunday last week: 'The decision is to store them safely afloat at the location where they were decommissioned until a national decision about a long-term disposal route for such items has been taken. We would not do it if it was not safe. The Royal Navy is not in the business of trying to frighten people.'

But the carcasses of the vessels are only part of the massive nuclear waste problem facing Devonport and Rosyth. There are three kinds of waste, and the Ministry of Defence has no idea how to get rid of any.

First there are the highly irradiated cores of the nuclear reactors. The reactors, each about the size of a large dustbin, are taken out of the submarines when they are decommissioned. In the past these have been sent to Sellafield, the Cumbrian nuclear complex, where the ministry says they will be 'reprocessed' into reusable fuel and nuclear waste.

Thirty six of them are now stored at Sellafield, and not one ounce has yet been reprocessed. British Nuclear Fuels, which runs the complex, says: 'What happens in the future is a confidential matter between us and the Ministry of Defence,' but senior Whitehall sources say that in fact there are no plans to hide.

No one knows how to reprocess spent submarine fuel, which the independent nuclear consultant John Large estimates to be 20-30 times more radioactive than the civilian reactor fuel treated at Sellafield, and which is made of nuclear bomb-grade uranium mixed with zirconium. No existing plant can treat them, and there are no plans to build one that can.

For the past three years the reactors have not even been taken to Sellafield, but stored at the ports, because the Department of Transport belatedly accepted a 1985 finding by the International Atomic Energy Authority that the containers used to transport them through England and Scotland were unsafe.

Devonport Management Ltd (DML), which manages the dockyard for the Navy, says that the number of reactors at the port is 'classified'. But the Independent on Sunday has established that there are five there - three in a cooling pond, the fourth in one of the condemned containers, and the fifth aboard Valiant. At Rosyth, there is a reactor and a half in a cooling pond, and one in another container - these will be joined by the reactor from Resolution.

New internationally approved containers are being designed, but these will not be ready until 1997 at the earliest. In the meantime the Ministry is planning to ease the growing crisis by transporting the reactors to Sellafield in 'interim flasks', starting in the next two months, though the junior defence minister Roger Freeman admits these 'are not seen as the ideal long-term solution'.

The second waste problem is a nuclear 'crud' from cleaning out the submarines' radioactive pipes, which is both radioactive and chemically toxic. DML admits that this, which it says 'looks for all the world like demarara sugar' - poses 'the main storing problem'.

It was dumped at sea until 1983, but now there are 23 containers of it at Devonport and 20 at Rosyth. Again nobody knows what to do with them. The Ministry hopes that they will eventually be buried in a deep underground dump, proposed for Sellafield. But this will not be ready until 2010 at the earliest, by which time, says DML, there will be 180 containers stored at Devonport.

The third category of waste is the 850 tons of irradiated metalwork and pipework of the reactor compartment of each submarine. Denied the chance to sink it, the Ministry is again having to hope that it can be dumped in the putative Sellafield depository. But this means leaving the growing number of submarines moored in their nuclear graveyards for at least another 16 years.

Then they will have to be cut up to fit down the dump's shaft, which will expose workers to radiation.

William Peden of Greenpeace says that the waste could be kept safely in specially constructed stores away from populated areas. 'But there does not seem to be any political will or urgency on behalf of the Government to do anything about this growing crisis.'

(Photograph, maps and graphic omitted)