Trident nuclear submarines at HM Naval Base Clyde Credt: PA
The Ministry of Defence’s £5bn a year nuclear operations are hampered by unfit-for-purpose infrastructure and susceptible to costs and skills uncertainty because of Brexit, according to a new report.
According to the Public Accounts Committee, the MoD’s Nuclear Enterprise – which support the nation’s continuous at-sea deterrent – faces a range of challenges that could exacerbate long-term budgetary pressures across the Enterprise that include a £2.9bn affordability gap.
The PAC said the age and condition of the Enterprise’s 13 UK sites varied and noted that department did not have enough berthing space at HM Naval Base Devonport to maintain and defuel submarines at a time when there were 20 vessels awaiting disposal, nine of which contain nuclear fuel.
MPs said that although nuclear submarines had been in service since the late 1960s, the UK had never completely disposed of one and that the department recognised that “past decisions to delay maintenance had created ‘a ticking time bomb’”.
The PAC noted that the MoD now accepted that deferring work to save money was “no longer acceptable on safety and reputation grounds” and that it now expected to complete work on dismantling its first submarine in the mid-2020s. Officials admitted that the remaining disposals would take “at least a couple of decades” they added.
Elsewhere, the report said that the MoD recognised that Brexit could affect the Enterprise’s supply chain and skills pool, as well as creating regulatory issues in relation to chemicals and material standards.
PAC chair Meg Hillier said the cost, complexity and risks to delivery of the Nuclear Enterprise’s current 52 projects gave rise to serious questions about the MoD's ability to meet its national security commitments.
“In the past there has been significant slippage across Enterprise programmes,” she said.
“The MoD must now bridge an affordability gap running to nearly £3bn, fill critical skill gaps and ensure its supply chain is maintained effectively – all at a time of significant uncertainty in international politics and trade. I am particularly concerned that the infrastructure available to support the Enterprise is not fit for purpose.
"The MoD needs to get on top of this quickly and, in general terms, be more open about progress being made with management and delivery of the submarine-based deterrent. It must ensure parliament has the detailed information it needs to make informed and meaningful judgements."
Among other recommendations the PAC called on the department to end its practice of delaying the disposal of out-of-service submarines and include a progress update on decommissioning work and key infrastructure programmes in its annual report to parliament on the Dreadnought Submarine Programme. Dreadnought submarines are the replacement for the Royal Navy’s Trident missile-carrying Vanguard Class submarines.
An MoD spokesperson said the department’s nuclear programmes were some of the most complex engineering projects ever undertaken by the UK defence industry.
“They provide the most powerful submarines in our history and support thousands of British jobs,” they said.
“We are committed to delivering these nuclear programmes on time and within budget and will carefully consider the recommendations in this report to ensure this remains the case.
“We continue to press ahead with our dismantling projects. Work is underway to enhance our infrastructure so our programmes continue to run at the highest standards.”
The MoD said it had capacity to store decommissioned submarines safely and would have sufficient capacity to store those vessels due to leave service. The department added that it was committed to ensuring that all dismantling was undertaken in a safe, secure, cost-effective and environmentally sound manner.