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Nuclear Submarine Recycling (Reporting)

Volume 662: debated on Wednesday 19 June 2019

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require the Government to prepare a strategy for recycling out-of-service Royal Navy nuclear submarines and to report annually on progress, to consult on extending decommissioning powers in Part 1 of the Energy Act 2004 to include the recycling of Royal Navy nuclear submarines, and to publish estimates of the taxpayer liability associated with such submarines; and for connected purposes.

Britain still has every nuclear submarine that it has ever had. There are 13 old nuclear submarines tied up in Devonport in Plymouth and seven tied up in Rosyth. When I was elected in 2017, I said that I would make safely, securely and sustainably recycling these submarines one of my priorities. I have asked the Prime Minister two questions at PMQs about the lack of a funded plan to recycle them. I have helped to put together a cross-party campaign with the hon. Members for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman) and for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan). We have met Ministers, submitted proposals and encouraged the questioning of the Public Accounts Committee, which published an excellent report on the subject today. We now present our arguments and proposals in this Bill. The Bill has cross-party backing from a range of colleagues who are all as passionate as I am to get these nuclear submarines recycled safely and securely, and I am grateful to see so many of them in the Chamber.

Many people are not aware that we still have all the submarines that have served in the Royal Navy. The 13 stored in Devonport and the seven in Rosyth are potentially just the start of many more to enter storage. The oldest submarine stored in Devonport is HMS Valiant, which was launched in 1963 at the height of the cold war. The submarines can be seen on Google Maps—if anyone watching this debate zooms in on Plymouth, on the left-hand side of the city, at No. 3 basin in Devonport, they will see lines of nuclear submarines, many of which have been there for decades.

It would be easy for me to make cheap headlines by saying that these nuclear submarines pose a safety risk, but populism is not my style. I want to be clear that there is no immediate safety risk to our local communities from these submarines. Babcock does all it can to look after the submarines, ensuring that there are no leaks and no risks to our communities. I thank the company and its staff for their work, but Plymouth and Rosyth cannot be asked to look after the submarines indefinitely without a plan for their disposal.

This is a personal matter for me. I am the son of a submariner who served on HMS Swiftsure and HMS Conqueror and worked on refitting and extending the operational lives of many of these submarines as an engineer in Devonport—my family know these subs well. It is a point of curiosity not lost on my old man that one Pollard served on them, and his son is busy trying to chop them up and dispose of them, but both Pollards are doing what is in the national interest.

We already have a civil nuclear programme dealing with the clean-up of our civil nuclear past. The taxpayer-funded Nuclear Decommissioning Authority is working on cleaning up 17 old civil nuclear sites, but its work does not currently cover decommissioned nuclear submarines. The taxpayer has an unlimited liability for the clean-up, as clearly stated in the Energy Act 2004, and rightly so. We know that nine of the 20 submarines retired since 1980 contain nuclear fuel. They are not currently a risk, but they need to be dealt with. My Bill seeks to prepare the ground for the extension of the unlimited taxpayer liability for civil nuclear clean-up to these old Royal Navy submarines. If we extend the line of credit from the Treasury, work can begin, and we can genuinely deal with our nuclear legacy.

These submarines are not only taking up valuable space in our dockyards but costing the taxpayer millions of pounds a year in storage and maintenance costs. The Public Accounts Committee has today released a report that puts the cost to the taxpayer at £30 million a year. That money could and should be used for dismantling and defuelling the submarines and finally dealing with these retired boats.

The report warns that the Ministry of Defence is reaching a “crisis point” in terms of space and will run out of space to store submarines by the mid-2020s. In the next four years, three more Trafalgar class submarines will need to be stored somewhere, as they are replaced by the new Astute class subs being built in Barrow. The Prime Minister told me in this Chamber that they will be stored at Devonport, taking our number of old retired submarines up to 16. A decade later, the four Vanguard class Trident subs will need to be stored when they are taken out of service and replaced by the new Dreadnought class submarines, but where will they go? There is no space at Devonport, and Rosyth is closed for more submarines. That is why we need a funded plan to deal with the ones we have and make space for the ones that will come out of service soon.

Instead of further delaying this decision, it is clear that the Government need to act now. I know that Rosyth has plans for the dock space currently used by the submarines, and I want No. 3 basin in Devonport to be used to enhance the base-porting location for the brilliant new Type 26 frigates we will get, and hopefully the Type 31 frigates in due course.

Over a year ago, I helped to kick off this campaign with colleagues from all parties. We wrote to the Prime Minister urging her to fund a defuelling and dismantling strategy. These submarines will not go away on their own. Although they have been hidden out of sight for many years, the longer this recycling project drags on, the more expensive it becomes to deal with them. Retired submarines have been ignored by Governments of all colours for more than 50 years. They need to be dealt with properly—I think all parties can unite on that—to secure a safe and decent future.

A properly funded defuelling and dismantling strategy—broadly, submarine recycling—would present opportunities to invest in skills and innovation. It would also foster greater collaboration between the defence and civil nuclear sectors. The workforce already moves between those sectors, as does the science of decommissioning, but at the moment the Government still deal with them in two distinct silos. There is an efficiency for the public purse in collaborating, and the future really must be more joined up between the ministerial and official level and the work on the ground and in the docks. Decommissioning is highly skilled and technical work that creates good jobs and supports the local economy and community. Above all, recycling these old nuclear submarines is in the national interest. Plymouth and Rosyth cannot be asked to store old nuclear submarines indefinitely. That is why we need a properly funded plan for these submarines, using the same principles as in the civil nuclear clean-up programme, because they must be recycled safely, securely and sustainably.

We know that once people find out about these submarines, they are concerned about what will happen to them. We also know that once people have seen them—whether on Google Maps, in person by driving alongside the docks in Devonport and Rosyth, or on the warship tours in the dockyard in Devonport—they have no choice but to think about what should happen to them. That is why, on behalf of the hon. Members for Berwick-upon-Tweed and for Dunfermline and West Fife, I am presenting this Bill as part of a campaign that will not rest until we win. I am doing so to highlight these subs and to demand—politely, but firmly—that a solution is found. We need to acknowledge that these nuclear submarines exist and need to be dealt with. We need a proper plan from the MOD for recycling these submarines, with a clear timeframe, and we need to extend the unlimited taxpayer liability to ensure that this essential work can be delivered. That is what my Bill will do, and that is why it has cross-party support. I hope Ministers will pick it up and run with it.

Question put and agreed to.


That Luke Pollard, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, Douglas Chapman, Dr Julian Lewis, Meg Hillier, Mrs Madeline Moon, Ruth Smeeth, Sir Gary Streeter, Richard Harrington, Dr Alan Whitehead, Jamie Stone and Mr Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi present the Bill.

Luke Pollard accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 408).