Luke Pollard: Let's begin the process of recycling our nuclear submarines

Posted On: 
24th June 2019

The task of dealing with our obsolete nuclear submarines has been ignored for over 50 years. A clear timetable and funding for a full dismantling and recycling programme is needed, says Luke Pollard

Decommissioned nuclear submarines at Rosyth Dockyard in Dunfermline
Credit: 
PA Images

You might not know that the UK still has every single nuclear submarine we have ever had. Some of our old submarines have now been in storage longer than they were in active service. The Ministry of Defence doesn’t have a clear funding plan for the defuelling and dismantling of these submarines. This means the MoD now stores twice as many as submarines as it operates.

The oldest sub in storage in Devonport dockyard – which sits in the patch of Plymouth I represent – is HMS Valiant. She is 55 years old and was launched in 1963 at the height of the cold war. As a Plymouth lad, I have grown up knowing about these submarines. I imagine most people have never considered where old submarines go. “Don’t they just go away?” ​is a common response when I talk about this issue. Well, no, they do not. Obsolete nuclear submarines get tied up alongside in Devonport and in Rosyth, Fife, because the UK has no funded programme to recycle them. That needs to change.

Last week I introduced a 10-minute rule bill to deal with our nuclear legacy and get these retired nuclear submarines recycled. Time and space for new submarines to be stored has now run out and a clear timetable and funding for a full dismantling and recycling programme is needed.

Rosyth has seven, Devonport dockyard has 13 laid-up nuclear submarines awaiting recycling, eight of which are still nuclear fuelled.

In the next four 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, 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.

These submarines won’t go away on their own and, as this recycling project drags out, it becomes more and more expensive. Retired submarines have been ignored by governments of all colours for over 50 years. The need to deal with our nuclear legacy should unite all parties.

My bill to start the recycling process in earnest has been backed by Labour, Conservative, SNP and Liberal Democrat members. There is genuine cross-party support, so it is time for this generation of politicians and ministers to come together to grasp this issue and resolve it. There is cross-party resolve to clean up civil nuclear sites and that will needs to be extended to include these old nuclear submarines.

'Recycling the submarines safely, sustainably and securely should be a matter of national urgency'

Recycling the submarines safely, sustainably and securely should be a matter of national urgency. These old subs do not pose an immediate safety risk to the communities in Plymouth or Rosyth, but we must not wait until a time when they do. As a nation we have skipped over the fate of these submarines, but we cannot ask Plymouth and Rosyth to look after them indefinitely.

That is why we need a clear timetable for funding a dismantling and recycling programme. We know the defence budget is already under massive pressure, which is why the cross-party campaign I launched last year proposes extending the remit of the civil Nuclear Decommissioning Authority to include nuclear submarines. Expanding the civil nuclear clean-up budget to include nuclear submarines can turn an economic problem into an economic asset.

Devonport’s nuclear workers are among the best in the business. Our dockyard is the nation’s sole nuclear repair and refuelling facility for the Royal Navy. A recycling programme of work would spread these skills, creating more jobs in Plymouth as well as new ones in Rosyth, Capenhurst, and West Cumbria, with potential for export work too.

Ministers cannot continue to kick the can down the road. It is time to deal with our nuclear legacy and create jobs in the process.

Luke Pollard is Labour MP for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport