Luke Pollard and Douglas Chapman: Let’s come together and recycle our old submarines sustainably, safely and securely

Posted On: 
21st June 2018

It’s up to our generation to deal with the legacy of our out-of-service nuclear submarines. We need a properly-funded plan – backed by a strong cross-party consensus, write Luke Pollard and Douglas Chapman

Decommissioned nuclear submarines at Rosyth Dockyard in Dunfermline.
PA Images

You might not know that every nuclear submarine the UK has ever had, we still have. Instead of submarines being recycled when they finish their silent patrols, they’re simply tied up alongside, waiting for their fate. Most people don’t know this.

Most people also don’t know that there is no plan for dealing with these nuclear submarines. We know how to recycle these submarines but no government has ever committed the funding it takes to do this. As a result, these legacy subs remain tied up with the communities around them asked to accept their indefinite presence.

There are 13 old submarines stored in Devonport in Plymouth and seven in Rosyth - the oldest, HMS Valiant, is 54 years old and was first used in the height of the Cold War.

Plymouth, Rosyth and Copeland are about as far apart as any of the UK’s constituencies could be, but they are connected with these submarines. While Rosyth and Plymouth have the submarines, Copeland and Sellafield, in particular, has the nuclear expertise and workforce ready to process the nuclear legacy of these submarines. Together, we wrote to the Prime Minister this weekend calling for a properly funded programme to deal with our nation’s nuclear legacy.

There is cross-party support for the nuclear clean-up programme for nuclear power stations. There are 17 sites across the nation where our nation’s nuclear past is being dealt with professionally and sustainably by the Nuclear Decommissioning Agency. The taxpayer has an unlimited liability and will have to pay whatever the cost to ensure these nuclear sites are cleaned up.

Our argument is a simple one: cleaning up our nation’s nuclear power station legacy is a national endeavour funded directly by the Treasury. It enjoys cross-party support and is the right thing to do. Communities around these old power stations should not be left to deal with old power stations – and we believe those same principles should apply to old Royal Navy submarines too.

That is why in our joint letter to Theresa May and all party leaders, we asked them to commit to recycle the UK’s retired Royal Navy submarines using the same principles as civil nuclear clean up. We argue that additional funding, parallel to the NDA’s existing funding, should be allocated to recycle the nation’s legacy submarines before any more submarines come out of service.

In the next five years three more Trafalgar-class submarines will need to be stored somewhere as they are replaced by the new Astute-class subs being built in Barrow. A decade later, in the early 2030s, the four Vanguard-class Trident subs will need to be stored when they are taken out of service as they are replaced by the new Dreadnought-class submarines.

We believe there is a chance to create a political consensus to recycle these old submarines if we use the principles of the civil nuclear decommissioning agency and allocate additional funding to cover nuclear submarines. So far taxes are used to clean up our old nuclear power stations and we argue that the same funding stream should be extended to old nuclear submarines.

Not only is this the right thing to do, by expanding the civil nuclear cleanup budget to cover submarines, we would create new jobs in Plymouth, Rosyth and West Cumbria, as well as spread our expertise around the world.

Our cross-party approach is designed to take away the point scoring when it comes to nuclear and come to a responsible decision. Whatever your view of the role or purpose of these submarines, they have kept us safe and we need to decide their future.

None of our parties should turn their back on this. This isn’t about reopening the debate on Trident and pitting one party against another. While there is no immediate safety risk from these submarines thanks to regular inspection, what we should all agree is our responsibility to deal with them now.

Now that you know about these submarines you are confronted by the same question as we were: what next?

What would you do if you had these submarines where you lived? If you were MP what would you do?

It is up to the government of the day to address this legacy and the best way to bring this about is a strong, balanced, cross-party consensus. Let’s come together and recycle these submarines sustainably, safely and securely. 


Luke Pollard is the Labour and Co-op MP for Plymouth Sutton and Devonport. Douglas Chapman is SNP MP for Dunfermline and West Fife