Just the small matter of the bill for scrapping Blighty's old nuclear submarines: It's £7.5bn

Fun fact: We haven't dismantled a single one. Ever

HMS Vengeance returns to HMNB Clyde. Crown copyright
HMS Vengeance, pictured floating around Faslane. Crown copyright

Storing Britain's obsolete nuclear submarines has cost the nation £500m – with some 1960s boats having been in storage for longer than they were in service.

The National Audit Office's (NAO) latest report into British nuclear submarine storage and disposal revealed that nine of the 20 vessels moored at Devonport and Rosyth dockyards still contain spent nuclear fuel.

Meg Hillier, chair of the Commons Public Accounts Committee, said: "For more than 20 years the Ministry of Defence has been promising to dismantle its out-of-service nuclear submarines and told my committee last year that it would now address this dismal lack of progress."

The NAO pegged the cost of scrapping just one submarine at around £96m, adding that costs had spiralled by £800m between 2002 and 2016. Most worryingly, the NAO also pointed out "the lack of berthing space within the Devonport dockyard", urging the MoD to get on with it. No nuclear submarines have been fully scrapped since the UK moved its nuclear deterrent from RAF aircraft to Royal Navy submarines in the 1960s.

Newly passed out 2Lts from 6 RIFLES on Salisbury Plain Training Area. Crown copyright, 2013

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HMS Swiftsure, launched in 1971, will be dismantled in 2023, the MoD promised the NAO. The initial plan was to start scrapping old boats by 2011, a date long since missed.

When a submarine is decommissioned, it is defuelled; radioactive material is removed from the hull and disposed of*..

Higher-level radioactive waste, including the reactor pressure vessel (RPV), needs a more involved disposal plan. The MoD's current plan for disposal of RPVs involves a "geological storage facility" in Cheshire that is expected to be open for use in the "mid 2020s".

A spokesman for the MoD said: "The disposal of nuclear submarines is a complex and challenging undertaking. We remain committed to the safe, secure and cost-effective de-fuelling and dismantling of all decommissioned nuclear submarines as soon as practically possible."

Another boat in long-term storage is HMS Conqueror, the Falklands War boat captained by Commander Chris Wreford-Brown. In May 1982, Wreford-Brown sank the Argentine cruiser ARA General Belgrano, Britain's first and only publicly confirmed submarine kill since WWII. In a curious twist of history, the Belgrano was originally commissioned into the US Navy as USS Phoenix in 1935, surviving the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941 and the rest of WWII to be sold to the Argentinians in the 1950s.

With the total financial liability of nuclear decommissioning estimated at £7.5bn by the NAO, the nuclear submarine legacy is another crushingly expensive millstone around the MoD's neck along the same lines as the disastrous Capita-run Recruiting Partnership Programme contract. ®

Bootnote

*(This would be a handy infographic if you were ever tasked with the job)

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