The nuclear submarines Britain quietly forgot about (at a cost of £16m)

In a time when efficiency is the watchword for the MOD, perhaps we should begin by dealing with our fleet of Cold War relics.

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What do Swedish pop group ABBA have in common with the 3,500-ton nuclear-powered attack submarine HMS Dreadnought? Both are inexplicably still around, despite having done nothing of note since the 1970s.

Britain is a nation with a proud maritime tradition, a lineage stretching from Drake, to Nelson, to Jutland, and later in the 20th century to the extensive action of the Royal Navy Submarine Service. With their motto “we come unseen”, the “Silent Service”, as the Navy’s submarines are termed, has seen action in most major conflicts since the Second World War, including anti-ship operations around the Falklands, and cruise missile delivery missions during wars in Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya. They also, of course, hold responsibility for the UK’s Trident nuclear missiles.

Since the 1960s, the Navy has put 30 nuclear-powered submarines into action, and 20 of these have since been retired, yet none of these 20 have been dismantled. HMS Dreadnought, Britain’s first ever nuclear submarine, has been de-fuelled but is still waiting for scrapping – despite being taken out of service in 1980. It is one of the 11 submarines retired before the turn of the century that are still inexplicably moored in British ports.

Given Theresa May’s recently announced £600m boost to submarine funding, one can’t help looking at the 20 decaying subs and wondering if potential savings are being missed. Between 2010-16 alone, £16m was spent on upkeep costs for subs that will never sail again. In a time when efficiency is the watchword for the MOD, perhaps we should begin by dealing with our fleet of Cold War relics.

Defence Minister Gavin Williamson last week made headlines by loudly requesting a £20bn increase to his budget, in order to pull UK defence spending up to three per cent of GDP – despite the fact that we already hit the two per cent NATO target spend. This move came partly in response to Lord General Nick Houghton's remarks that “it might be the UK should cease to be a world military power”. The American secretary of defence, James Mattis, is also angling for an increase in UK spending, warning recently that Britain could be supplanted by France as the USA's “partner of choice” if the defence budget does not rise. With Philip Hammond indicating that belts must be tightened and such an increase is unlikely, surely efficiency savings should be chased wherever they arise?

At Prime Minister’s Questions in June 2018, Luke Pollard, Labour MP for Plymouth Sutton and Devonport and the son of a submariner, demanded that Theresa May provide “a properly funded plan to recycle these old subs... this issue has been ignored by the government of all colours for over 50 years.” The government has been tight-lipped about the final cost of its Submarine Dismantlement Project (SDP), officially begun in 2016 and expected to last at least a quarter of a century.

The Navy’s submarine graveyard at Devonport is home to thirteen retired ships – alone outnumbering the Navy’s currently operational fleet of ten – while a further seven are moored at Rosyth in Scotland. Among these inactive ships are HMS Conqueror, the vessel that controversially sunk the ARA General Belgrano during the 1982 Falklands War, and HMS Resolution, the first British vessel to test-fire submarine-launched nuclear missiles (in 1968). Many, including the Conqueror, have been awaiting scrapping longer than they were ever in service.

Nuclear fuel rods have been removed from eleven submarines, one (HMS Courageous) has been converted into a museum, and in 2016 dismantlement work finally began on one vessel – HMS Swiftsure, which retired from service in 1991.

This sluggish progress is a problem seemingly unique to Britain’s submarine fleet. Surface craft are usually turned around very quickly after retirement, with aircraft carriers HMS Ark Royal, Illustrious, and Invincible all scrapped in Turkey within three years of leaving service. Others, including the former Royal Navy flagship HMS Ocean and the entire fleet of four Upholder-Class diesel submarines were swiftly sold on to the UK’s allies, heading to Brazil and Canada respectively.

The nuclear component of the submarines obviously complicates the scrapping process – fuel rods must be individually removed and sent to secure storage. However, movement on this front is still glacially slow. HMS Splendid, a 40-year-old submarine retired in 2003, still has all of its fuel rods aboard. The same is true of HMS Sovereign and HMS Spartan, both decommissioned in 2006, as well as six further subs at Devonport.

Private contractor Babcock International currently holds the contract for decommissioning works. Its Devonport site is the only location nationwide at which reactors can be decommissioned, and only has the infrastructure to work on one ship at a time. As a result, the de-fuelling process is painstakingly slow. Idle submarine reactors are secure and thus pose little to no threat to the surrounding population, but a regular schedule of maintenance – including periodic dry-docking and repainting of the subs – ensures that costs remain high.

The scrapping process has further been hampered by an inability to find a suitable storage facility for spent fuel rods. For much of the 2000s there was no approved location for these rods, before Capenhurst in Cheshire was selected in 2016. Even this is a stopgap measure, pending the building of a planned £12bn geological disposal facility (GDF) at an as-yet undecided location.

Other nations operating nuclear-powered fleets have hit no such roadblocks – the United States has successfully decommissioned 130 nuclear submarines since the 1980s, and Russia has scrapped 190 since the collapse of the Soviet Union. France, whose smaller fleet is comparable to that of the UK, has scrapped three retired subs.

The inception of the Submarine Dismantlement Project does at least show movement in the right direction, after decades of governmental procrastination. The upkeep costs for the 20 retired subs may be low in the grand scheme of the defence budget, but they represent an endemic problem of failed long-term planning by the MOD. In 2016, an independent report by businessman Sir John Parker made the accusation that “old ships are retained in service well beyond their sell-by date with all the attendant high costs of so doing.”

With seven more nuclear submarines leaving service in the next decade, Pollard is anxious to point out that “Plymouth cannot have an indefinite responsibility to store these old nuclear submarines.” Indeed, the UK as a whole cannot – the sooner the relics of the “Silent Service” are disposed of, the better.