The UK has not disposed of any nuclear powered submarines it has decommissioned since 1980, threatening further budget overruns and placing the Ministry of Defence’s storage docks under pressure, a report by the government spending watchdog found.
The National Audit Office said the closure of an MoD facility at Devonport in Plymouth which removes nuclear waste from the reactor that powers the vessels has led to a series of knock-on delays. It has also left Britain’s capacity to store the ageing submarines at breaking point.
“The ministry needs to get a grip urgently before we run out of space to store and maintain submarines and we damage our reputation as a responsible nuclear power,” said Meg Hillier, Labour MP and chair of parliament’s public accounts committee.
The NAO report comes as Gavin Williamson, the defence secretary, prepares to launch a fresh campaign for more money for Britain’s armed forces in the government’s upcoming comprehensive spending review. Despite winning an extra £1bn for defence last year, the MoD’s £186bn equipment plan faces a funding gap of up to £15bn over the next decade.
The cost of maintaining Britain’s nuclear deterrent — which includes four new nuclear powered Astute class submarines as well as four Dreadnought class boats to carry the UK’s nuclear armed Trident missiles — makes up about a quarter of the MoD’s equipment budget.
However the cost of defuelling and dismantling its former fleet of nuclear submarines is now threatening to become another heavy burden on the MoD’s finances with the ministry now storing twice as many submarines as it operates.
The NAO report said that over the past four decades, the ministry had spent £500m on maintaining and disposing of retired submarines at Devonport and the Rosyth dockyard.
The MoD estimates its future liability for maintaining its 20 stored and 10 in-service nuclear powered submarines is £7.5bn with the NAO adding that the department had not “fully considered its approach to disposing of all its operational and future submarines”.
Before breaking down and recycling each boat, nuclear engineers must first remove radioactive waste from the reactor with the irradiated fuel transported to the UK’s reprocessing centre at Sellafield for storage.
But work at the only defuelling facility, run by the UK defence company Babcock at Devonport, was suspended in 2004 after the Office for Nuclear Regulation found it did not meet the latest regulatory standards.
Nine of the 20 out-of-service submarines are still waiting to have their radioactive waste removed. The MoD estimates that the defuelling facility will only restart operations in 2023 after the department’s budget was spent elsewhere. This is 11 years after originally planned and has led to a £100m increase in costs to £275m.
Trevor Taylor, an analyst with the UK defence think-tank, the Royal United Services Institute, said he did not believe there was a risk to public safety from the storage of so many ageing nuclear submarines.
“In my understanding, the facilities at Devonport reflect the stringent requirements of the nuclear regulatory authorities . . . the facility should thus be ‘safe’,” said Mr Taylor.
The NAO said that the MoD’s ability to dispose of its submarines was largely dependent on Babcock — the sole contractor capable of carrying out the work. The already delayed project was put further behind schedule following an unplanned MoD decision in 2014 to refuel HMS Vanguard, one of the four nuclear submarines which carry the nuclear deterrent, and a two-year pause to infrastructure upgrades at Devonport ordered by the Royal Navy in 2016 to save money.
A contract between Babcock and the MoD to upgrade and manage the defuelling facility is due to run out this month. The NAO report said the ministry “does not yet know how much it will cost to complete this work given commercial negotiations [with Babcock] are ongoing”, adding that the MoD “expects to pay more than initially forecast”.
Labour MP Kevan Jones, a former shadow defence minister, said: “This report is completely damning and shows the government has no strategic plan to deal with these issues. As a matter of urgency it needs to be made clear what the plan is for defuelling and the contractual arrangements with Babcock.”
Babcock declined to comment and directed any inquiries regarding the conclusions of the report to the MoD, which described the disposal of submarines as a “complex and challenging undertaking”.
“We are currently negotiating new contractual arrangements with Babcock to provide better value for money for the taxpayer,” a spokesperson said.