Project ISOLUS

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:30 pm on 6th January 2004.

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Photo of Alan Reid Alan Reid Opposition Whip (Commons) 3:30 pm, 6th January 2004

I am pleased to have the opportunity to introduce a debate today on this important subject. The acronym ISOLUS stands for interim storage of laid-up submarines. The purpose of the project is to reach a conclusion on how to dispose of our old, decommissioned nuclear submarines.

In days gone by, the Navy took a much simpler approach. Decommissioning old equipment or ammunition was often simply a case of sailing out to sea and tossing the ammunition over the side of the ship. The principle out of sight, out of mind, clearly applied. Fortunately, these days we are much more concerned about the environment.

The Ministry of Defence has 27 nuclear-powered submarines, 16 of which are in service and 11 of which have already been taken out of service. The spent nuclear fuel is removed from the reactors when the submarines are taken out of service. However, that still leaves the reactor compartment, which contains radioactive materials and other toxic substances. The 11 submarines that have been taken out of service are stored afloat. Seven are stored at Rosyth and four at Devonport. Afloat storage uses the structure of the submarine and its reactor compartment as a means of containing the radioactive waste, so shielding the outside world from the radiation.

Obviously, the crew lived in the submarine when it was in service, so there is no doubt that the reactor compartment safely contains the radiation. The submarines are therefore clearly safe afloat. By 2012, however, a sizeable number of other submarines will have come out of service and there will no longer be space at the existing berths to store them afloat. Berthing space is available at No. 4 basin in Devonport as a possible option if the afloat storage policy must continue after 2012. That basin has the capacity to store another 11 vessels, which would provide afloat storage space until 2037.

When the submarines were conceived, the Government of the day, back in the 1950s, planned to dispose of them according to the traditional out of sight, out of mind principle. That meant taking the submarines out to the Atlantic and scuttling them. By 1993, however, the possibility of dumping them at sea was finally ruled out by the London dumping convention, which prohibits the dumping at sea of radioactive material.

Before the first nuclear submarines were decommissioned, the MOD had adopted a policy of temporary afloat storage at Rosyth and Devonport. It anticipated final disposal in an underground deep-waster repository. In 1997, however, the Nirex proposal for an underground laboratory in Cumbria to prepare for a national repository was rejected. That decision, and the prospect of running out of berths for the decommissioned submarines, led to the ISOLUS project. The MOD commissioned Lancaster university to carry out a consultation exercise.

The first stage in any disposal process involves removing the reactor compartment from the submarine. The rest of the submarine is safe and can be broken up for scrap. There are then two options, one of which is to store the reactor compartment intact until most of the radioactivity has decayed, which is estimated to take about 60 years. The French and United States Governments have chosen that option. It is important to note that the reactor compartment is very large. It is about the size of two double-decker buses, so transporting it to a storage site would clearly be cumbersome and would also require a large burial chamber. That is the disadvantage of that option, but it has the advantage that it avoids any risks involved in opening up the reactor compartment, so that there is no danger of the radiation getting out into the atmosphere.

The second option is to go further after removing the reactor compartment from the submarine: to break it open and to separate it into free release material, low-level radioactive waste and intermediate-level radioactive waste. The intermediate-level waste causes the main problem. It has to be securely packaged and then stored in a secure facility.

Four companies have submitted proposals that are being investigated by Lancaster university as part of the consultation project. I believe that the consultation is too restrictive, because it is based simply on the proposals put forward by the private sector. In addition to considering the proposals put forward by the private sector, the Government should themselves be researching the safest and most environmentally friendly solution. A fifth company had also submitted a proposal. Its intention had been to break up the submarines at Ardyne Point, in my constituency, but it quickly pulled out after a public outcry.

It should also be noted that one of the other options originally proposed breaking up the submarines at Nigg, in Easter Ross. However, the owners of that yard also quickly pulled out after a public outcry. It is clear that the private sector is wary of getting involved in the nuclear decommissioning business.

It is also obvious that the private sector is driven by its commercial interests. The operators of two of the dockyards where submarines are laid up—Babcock at Rosyth and Devonport Management Ltd. at Devonport—have both put forward proposals. However, it is clear that their main commercial interest is getting the submarines moved away from their existing sites at Devonport and Rosyth.

I want briefly to consider DML's proposal. In its submission, DML notes that it has the skilled work force to carry out the work, but it also notes that the dockyard is close to residential areas. DML therefore proposes to cut out the reactor components and to transport them to another site for storage. It wants to remove them to a site that is

"remote from residential and commercial areas".

The chosen site is a long way from Devonport, at Dounreay on the north coast of Scotland. Again, the old out of sight, out of mind principle seems to be coming to the fore. It is important to bear it in mind that such a proposal involves carrying the large, cumbersome reactor compartments with the radioactive waste inside. They would have to be carried on the long journey from the south coast of England to the north coast of Scotland.

One of the other submissions is from Babcock, which operates the dockyard at Rosyth. Babcock makes it clear that it wants rid of the submarines from Rosyth as quickly as possible. It has also refused to allow the radioactive waste to be stored on site at Rosyth, either within the intact reactor components or as packaged radioactive waste. Babcock gave local public concern as one reason for that. However, Babcock does not seem to be bothered that there might also be public concern in the part of the country where the waste ends up.

Clearly both DML and Babcock are acting in their commercial interests. They have been happy to accept work from the MOD that has involved dealing with nuclear material, but as soon as they see no more commercial benefit they want rid of the submarines and the waste, and they want to send them as far away as they can.

Babcock has suggested Sellafield or Coulport as possible locations for storing the packaged intermediate-level radioactive waste. Coulport is on the east side of Loch Long. It is not in my constituency, but the west side of the loch is and the villagers on the west side—in Ardentinny, Strone and Blairmore—are extremely concerned at the suggestion of using Coulport to store that radioactive waste. The waste would be stored in large sheds, built on the hillside, and my constituents are naturally concerned at the prospect of large sheds of radioactive waste being sited just across the loch from their homes.