Wanted! A Site For Retired Nuclear Submarine Waste

Currently 20 retired Royal Navy nuclear submarines are waiting to be dismantled due to a lack of toxic waste storage, but the search itself...

A fresh search is underway to determine a suitable site where the government can store nuclear radioactive material from retired Royal Navy submarines.

Currently, 20 retired Royal Navy nuclear-powered submarines are waiting to be dismantled because the UK has no underground dump to safely store toxic waste.

The laid-up submarines are between 30 years and 54 years old, and are sitting at the Devonport naval base in Plymouth or Rosyth on the Firth of Forth.

Once a site is agreed upon, the government is hoping to build a £12 billion Geological Disposal Facility (GDF), essentially a subterranean nuclear dump encased in rock.

retired nuclear submarines
The rusting submarines pose no threat to their surroundings but cannot be dismantled until a site is established

Geoscience Communication Professor and Director of the Sustainable Earth Ins, Iain Stewart, explained the logic behind going underground:

“The idea of disposing it in the subsurface (undergound) is freaky for a lot of people who think we’re just ditching it down there.

"The trouble is surface storage is untenable for a number of reasons. You’ve got very dangerous material sitting at the surface prone to terrorist attacks, but also the point is this is waste that our generation has generated and benefited from, and to leave it on the surface puts it on to other generations to get rid of it at their cost.”

According to the government, building the facility will create up to 2000 jobs and bring £8 billion to the economy. However, the last effort to find a location was rejected by Cumbria County Council in 2013.

Polaris missile launch from HMS Revenge, in 1983
Polaris missile launch in 1983 from HMS Revenge, one of the subs waiting to be dismantled

The Ministry of Defence has previously said that for the time being, the nuclear-powered submarines are “safely stored” and there has been “no measurable increase to exposure to local people”.

However, the cost of maintaining the submarines is no small figure. Former Defence Minister, Harriett Baldwin, gave a figure in 2017 to MPs following written Commons questions.

She said: “The Ministry of Defence has spent to date circa £34.4 million on the maintenance and checked carried out by the MoD and regulators on the decommissioned submarines that are awaiting disposal.”

The Ministry of Defence's Submarine Dismantling Project (SDP) started in December 2016, with the first Royal Navy submarine to enter the programme, HMS Swiftsure, due to be fully dismantled in the early 2020s.

The UK's first nuclear-powered submarine which was commissioned in 1963, HMS Dreadnought, is currently one of the submarines on the dismantling waiting list. 

HMS dreadnought
HMS Dreadnought served until 1980 when damaged machinery and unavailable refit facilities sent her into retirement

The complicated site selection process could take up to 20 years alone, with the facility itself running for at least a century.

Other suggested solutions to the issue have included firing the waste off into space and putting it in deep oceans. However, Professor Iain Stewart explained how every country with this toxic waste issue is looking to deep storage as a fix. He added:

“There’s rocks that are millions of years old and they are a safer place than ironically, the society sitting at the surface.”