Royal Navy: Delays to dispose of Britain's fleet of decommissioned nuclear submarines have cost millions

BRITAIN continues to struggle on with dismantling and defueling its defunct fleet of nuclear submarines, in an effort that has already been plagued by delays and cost the taxpayer hundreds of millions.

The Royal Navy has a fleet of 21 decommissioned submarines afloat at military facilities – with almost half still waiting for their nuclear fuel to be removed.

Military bosses at the Ministry of Defence have already faced calls from politicians to speed up the process of getting rid of the irradiated boats, which cost £30m a year to store and maintain.

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HMS Trenchant sails up the River Thames in America to the Submarine Base situated near the small town of Groton in New England. The boat was decommissioned in 2021.

Now in a fresh update to MPs, the UK’s defence procurement minister, Jeremy Quin, has revealed some progress has been made in the much-delayed programme to defuel the nuclear subs - but more work still remains.

Of the 21 decommissioned boats in ‘afloat storage’ seven are at Rosyth, Scotland, and 14 at Devonport dockyard, in Plymouth.

All seven submarines in Rosyth have been defuelled and of the 14 decommissioned vessels at Devonport, 10 still remain fuelled and ‘await completion of the new defuelling facilities’ at the naval base.

Mr Quin added ‘As set out in the United Kingdom's future nuclear deterrent: the 2021 update to parliament, we continue to develop the submarine dismantling techniques necessary to meet all safety and sustainability standards and establish the long-term solution that provides best value for the taxpayer.

Picture shows HMS Tireless as she sails home for the last time through the Plymouth Sound heading for her home port of HMNB Devonport on the June 1 2014. After almost 30 years of service Tireless is due to be decommissioned.

‘Our commitment to the safe, secure, environmentally sound and cost-effective defueling and dismantling of all our decommissioned nuclear submarines as soon as practicably possible remains undiminished.’

But the project has already drawn criticism from politicians for its lengthy delays and soaring costs.

In 2019, MPs sitting on the Public Accounts Committee, which scrutinises Whitehall spending, said the 11-year delay caused costs to balloon by £100m.

Not a single boat has been disposed of yet, with total storage costs hitting about £500m. The oldest vessel in storage is HMS Dreadnaught, which was retired in 1980.

Nuclear submarine HMS Trafalgar enters Portsmouth Harbour in 2006 PICTURE:JONATHAN BRADY 063649-287

At the time of the report, nine vessels still contained nuclear waste. However, this increased last year with the decommissioning of HMS Trenchant, piling more pressure on defence chiefs.

‘The continual failure to progress submarine disposal has created an unacceptable and unnecessary problem for the department,’ the public accounts committee’s report concluded. ‘In not yet disposing of a single submarine, the department now risks running out of both storage and maintenance space.

‘The projects needed to allow disposal to happen have been beset by delays, with an 11-year delay to defueling and a 15-year delay to dismantling’

MPs also lashed at the Ministry of Defence, for ‘repeatedly’ making decisions on ‘short-term affordability’ which were ‘poor value for money’.

‘These decisions included deferring Devonport infrastructure work to save £19m in the short-term, which then delayed the defueling project by two years,’ the committee added. ‘The department is not yet able to confirm how much it will now cost to complete the project.

‘Given delays, the department continues to pay storage and maintenance costs of £30m a year.’

Mr Quin insisted construction on the new dismantling facility in Plymouth was ‘continuing’ and said the government expects to have a ‘fully developed process for steady state submarine dismantling ready by 2026’.

‘It is not MoD policy to pre-announce the funding of its projects for reasons of protecting commercial interests,’ he added.