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No place for nuclear subs

News

The Ministry of Defence wants to store Britain's decaying nuclear submarine reactors on land - but where?

A NEW TRANCHE of nuclear waste is due to be added to the UK's mounting pile when 11 obsolete Royal Navy nuclear submarines leave the sea for the last time.

Where precisely they will end up, however, is a question that no-one can answer.

Investigations by NCE can reveal that Ministry of Defence (MoD) plans for storage of the subs reactors at Rosyth and Devonport have run aground. The alternatives could mean nuclear reactors being transported to old nuclear power stations across the country, or even on to MoD land which is exempt from nuclear controls.

A crisis is emerging over what to do with the redundant submarines currently laid up afloat - four at Devonport dockyard and seven at Rosyth.

It once seemed so simple. From the time Britain's first N-sub HMS Dreadnought slid down the slipway in 1960, MoD strategy was to dump redundant subs at sea. This plan itself became redundant when in 1993 the UK signed up to a treaty banning the practice - a decision opposed by the MoD.

The MoD seemed to have no other ideas, moving the government's independent Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee to state in 1997 that the MoD had 'no policy' on the future of decommissioning nuclear submarines.

The present 'policy' of storage afloat - more a policy by default - has prevailed since Dreadnought retired in 1982. Ten more submarines came out of service in the 1990s, some finishing early due to nuclear reactor problems.

But alternatives need to be found. Submarines afloat require maintenance and occupy valuable dock space.

The abandonment of plans in 1997 for a nuclear waste repository in Cumbria meant further problems for the MoD, with no UK site for long term nuclear waste disposal likely to emerge until 2050 at the earliest, if at all.

An MoD project called Interim Storage of Laid Up Submarines (ISOLUS) concluded that breaking up the submarines and storing the reactors on land was the best option. Its report - made public in 2000 but with 'sensitive' material omitted - was followed by a lengthy public consultation steered by Lancaster University. The MoD recently finalised its policy, reaffirming its preference for storage of reactors on land.

The vessels range in size up to 8,000t. 'Dismantling would involve 'topping and tailing' - the submarine is scrapped except for the reactor compartment, which is around 750t and 10m in diameter - about the size of two double decker buses, ' explains nuclear consultant John Large.

The recent ISOLUS report picks out Devonport and Rosyth as two suitable sites for reactor storage. It states: 'Although there is no obvious land store site within the (Devonport) estate, it would be advantageous if a limited or temporary storage could be found in order that the land store programme could commence as soon as possible.'

And regarding Rosyth, the report says that 'it should be possible, within (Rosyth) to make land storage space available for the separated reactor components'.

However, a spokesman for Devonport operator DML, told NCE: 'We currently have no facility for the storage of nuclear compartments on our site and we have no plans to create one. The site is very congested and it is difficult to see how space could be created.'

And Rosyth operator Babcock BES also says it does not want to store the reactors.

'We want as much of these submarines removed from our site as early as possible, ' says BES radiation protection adviser Nick Parish.

The operator of Britain's other main nuclear submarine dockyard at Barrow echoed these views.

'We would have an interest in dismantling, but are not interested in storage, ' says a BAe Systems spokesman.

So where will they go? The MoD is about to seek answers from industry, and says that 'potential sites will emerge later this year'.

Unofficial talks are already under way.

Large, who advised the Russian government on raising the Kursk and acted for the Gibraltar government over the emergency reactor repairs to the sub HMS Tirelesss in 2000, said the engineering work involved would be complex. The reactors, although defuelled, would have significant radioactivity for around 80 years, with some materials remaining active for 150,000 years. 'Moving these reactors around would be very difficult because of their size - they would have to be shifted afloat, which has risks, ' he says.

A spokesman for the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate said that any likely site would have to have a nuclear licence. 'It would be simpler and easier to choose an existing licensed site. A greenfield site would potentially provoke a lot of questions, ' he says.

'You could be looking at most of the existing power reactor sites, or the Magnox power stations programmed for closure over the next four or five years. Also land under MoD control does not require a licence.'

Sites such as Sellafield, Berkely, Dounreay, Bradwell and Hinckley Point are therefore likely to be on the lists of consortia already developing proposals. Should none of these prove suitable, the MoD can relax in the knowledge that it has plenty of land of its own.

Communities living near these potential graveyards are unlikely to be so relaxed.

Diarmaid Fleming

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