What Happens to Old Nuclear Submarines: A Comprehensive Guide

When nuclear reactors used to power submarines and aircraft carriers are no longer in use, the Department of Defense is responsible for maintaining and monitoring the radioactive parts. The dismantling and disposal of a nuclear submarine is a complex process that requires special care in removing the radioactive components. The compartments are sent to the final disposal site on barges. Nuclear fuel must be carefully extracted from the reactor using special installations.

Then, the submarine itself must be dismantled, again with special care in removing the radioactive parts of the vessel. Currently, only one contractor, Babcock International Group PLC, is capable of meeting most of the Department's decommissioning and decommissioning requirements. While waiting for decommissioning, dismantled submarines are stored afloat in a non-tidal basin at the shipyard. Rosyth's 7 submarines have had their nuclear fuel rods removed, but of the 14 in Devonport, 10 still have fuel.

This is because, in 2003, fuel shortage facilities were considered to be no longer safe enough to meet modern regulatory standards and the process stalled. Submarines that have not had fuel removed have the reactor primary circuit chemically treated to ensure that it remains inert, and additional radiation monitoring equipment is installed. In Great Britain, Royal Navy nuclear submarines are designed so that the reactor module can be removed without having to separate the midsection compartments. There is almost total reliance on Babcock for UK submarine support activity and there are a very limited number of nuclear-experienced SQEPs available for recruitment in the UK. Once nuclear fuel is removed and transported to Sellafield for storage, the submarine can formally enter the Submarine Decommissioning Project (SDP). This project will deliver on the Government's commitment to provide a safe, environmentally responsible and cost-effective solution to dismantle 27 of the UK's fuel-free nuclear-powered submarines after they have left service in the Royal Navy. The seabed is filled with some 17,000 naval containers of radioactive waste, 16 nuclear reactors and five complete nuclear submarines; one of them has its two reactors still fully charged.

This makes some people living nearby uncomfortable and provides another complaint for those who ideologically oppose nuclear submarines and Trident. Using the three-compartment unit method, Russia has so far dismantled 120 nuclear submarines of the Northern Fleet and 75 submarines of its Pacific Fleet. They are subject to regular maintenance and control by the Ministry of Defense, the Defense Nuclear Safety Regulator and the Office of Nuclear Regulation, to comply with the required safety, environment and safety standards. First, the missing submarine is towed to a safe shortage dock where any liquid in its reactor compartment is drained to expose its spent nuclear fuel assemblies. In a less environmentally conscious era, filling ships with concrete and sinking them deep into the ocean was the original plan, but this was banned by the London Convention on Dumping in 1983. But at the end of their useful life, submarines essentially become floating, effervescent nuclear hazards with spent and lethal nuclear fuel that is extremely difficult to get out of. An exceptional industrial and political effort during the Cold War provided the RN with a formidable nuclear submarine force. At the disgusting end of the spectrum, in the Kara Sea north of Siberia, they are essentially nuclear dumps, with submarine reactors and fuel scattered across the seabed 300 m deep.

It would be wise for the Ministry of Defence to apply a similar principle to all new nuclear submarine constructions so as not to incur costly long-term steps for making a missing submarine safe.

Jerald Shiiba
Jerald Shiiba

Professional tv junkie. General zombie lover. Professional pop cultureaholic. Infuriatingly humble music scholar. Freelance travel maven.

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