Government delayed scrapping potentially unsafe nuclear submarines in bid to cut costs, MPs told

Influential Commons committee tells Ministry of Defence to put a stop to postponements after expert admits possible 'safety issue'

Benjamin Kentish
Political Correspondent
Friday 21 September 2018 00:18 BST
PMQs: Theresa May announces £600 million for MoD's nuclear submarine programme

The government has delayed scrapping potentially unsafe nuclear submarines because of concerns over costs, a new report from an influential committee of MPs has revealed.

20 disused submarines are currently awaiting disposal, according to the Ministry of Defence (MoD), including nine that still contain nuclear fuel.

But despite admitting to potential safety risks, the government will only begin dismantling the next vessel in the mid-2020s, while the total work needed to scrap the entire 20 submaries will not be completed until at least 2045.

The delays were exposed in a report by the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, which demanded that ministers stop delaying the disposal of disused submarines.

The committee said continued delays and a lack of investment in the UK's nuclear deterrent had created a “ticking time bomb” and that current nuclear facilities were “not fit for purpose”.

It comes months after the National Audit Office warned of a gaping £2.9bn funding gap in government plans to renew the UK’s Nuclear Enterprise – the system of equipment and staff that supports the nuclear submarines.

In evidence to MPs, the MoD admitted that cost savings had been a factor behind the delays in dismantling old submarines but said this was no longer an option because of safety fears.

The UK has never completely dismantled a nuclear submarine and is currently in the process of attempting to dispose of the first one, HMS Swiftsure. That work is due to be completed by 2023, with the process of dismantling the other vessels not scheduled to begin until then.

The disused submarines are being kept at Royal Navy bases at Devonport, near Plymouth, and Rosyth, near Edinburgh. The MoD does not currently have enough space to both maintain existing vessels and dispose of disused ones.

Julian Kelly, head of the government’s Defence Nuclear Organisation, told the PAC that cost savings were a factor behind the delays, but that this was no longer sustainable because of the “safety issue”.

He said maintaining the disused submarines in a safe condition costs several million pounds each year, but emphasised that the bigger problem was that “in the long term there is a safety issue that we have to manage”.

Asked if attempts to cut costs were a factor behind previous delays, Mr Kelly told MPs: “You can fully understood that they were deferring this defueling and dismantling programme while they thought they could, but we are now at the point where we are not comfortable continuing to do that, because you also have to persuade the regulator that it is safe to hold a submarine in a basin in Devonport, and you are getting to the point where we cannot keep on assuming that."

He admitted there was “no excuse” for the work having been consistently postponed.

In contrast to the UK’s approach, the US is reported to have retired 100 submarines, while Russia has dismantled 195 of the 201 that have been taken out of service.

MPs said the government must “end the practice of delaying disposal of out of service submarines” and provide Parliament with a yearly update on the process of decommissioning the vessels.

Meg Hillier, chair of the PAC, said: “These challenges, taken with the cost, complexity and risks to delivery of the Nuclear Enterprise, give rise to serious questions about the MoD’s ability to meet its national security commitments.

“In the past there has been significant slippage across Enterprise programmes. The MoD must now bridge an affordability gap running to nearly £3 billion, fill critical skill gaps and ensure its supply chain is maintained effectively – all at a time of significant uncertainty in international politics and trade.

What is Trident?

She added: “I am particularly concerned that the infrastructure available to support the Enterprise is not fit for purpose. The UK has 20 submarines awaiting disposal, nine of which contain fuel.

“The MoD admits that while it has previously put off dismantling submarines on grounds of cost, this is no longer acceptable on grounds of safety and reputation.

“The MoD needs to get on top of this quickly and, in general terms, be more open about progress being made with management and delivery of the submarine-based deterrent.

Labour MP Luke Pollard, whose constituency covers the Devonport base, told The Independent: "There’s no clear plan as to how these submarines are going to be dismantled and recycled. It’s not fair for these communities [in Devonport and Rosyth] to have this unlimited liability for these old submarines without a clear plan."

Mr Pollard said responsibility for dealing with the vessels should be handed to the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, which deals with disposing of fuel from nuclear power plants, because the MoD "simply does not have the financial capability to deal with these submarines".

He added: "We need to stop accepting this idea that they’re just going to sit there for the next year, the next decade. When we’re building new nuclear submarines, we need to have a clear plan for getting rid of the old ones.

"This is a can that has been kicked down the road by successive governments but the problem is becoming more acute because the space for more submarines is running out.

"The real frustration for me is that it has not been a political priority to recycle these submarines because they can get away with leaving them in Devonport because no one has kicked up a fuss. We’ve got to stop accepting that we’re going to be a nuclear graveyard, and we’ve got to have a plan for dealing with them."

In a scathing report, the MPs said the MoD “has not met many previous promises” and that “past programmes have slipped”. It said current infrastructure “does not effectively support” the UK’s Nuclear Enterprise.

An MoD spokesperson said: “Our nuclear programmes are some of the most complex engineering projects ever undertaken by the UK defence industry. They provide the most powerful submarines in our history and support thousands of British jobs.

“We are committed to delivering these nuclear programmes on time and within budget and will carefully consider the recommendations in this report to ensure this remains the case.

“We continue to press ahead with our dismantling projects. Work is underway to enhance our infrastructure so our programmes continue to run at the highest standards.”

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in