Alarm over plan to break up nuclear submarines at Hunterston

The company that runs the port at Hunterston in North Ayrshire wants to use it to break up the radioactive hulks of defunct nuclear submarines, The Ferret can reveal.

A plan by Peel Ports, released under freedom of information law, discloses that the firm sees “opportunities” for military submarine decommissioning at Hunterston.

But the idea has brought condemnation from politicians, environmental and community groups. They warn that the transport and dismantling of submarines would be “potentially hazardous” and could cause “significant environmental damage”.

There are currently seven old nuclear submarines laid up at Rosyth in Fife, and 13 at Devonport naval dockyard in Plymouth. The Ministry of Defence has been trying to work out for decades how to dismantle and dispose of them.

There are a further three ageing Trafalgar-class reactor-driven submarines due to be decommissioned in the next few years. The four Vanguard-class submarines, armed with Trident nuclear missiles and based at Faslane on the Clyde, are also scheduled to be replaced in the 2030s.

Peel Ports is planning a major redevelopment of Hunterston Port and Resource Centre (Parc) to create a “nationally significant energy and marine campus”. This will include power generation, offshore manufacture and fish farming, the company’s website says.

But a document seen by The Ferret discloses that Peel Ports is also considering nuclear submarine dismantling. A company “project plan” for developing designs and submitting planning applications for Hunterston has been released by the Scottish Government.

The plan proposed extending a jetty and building a gate for a dry dock. It said the developments “will position Hunterston at the forefront of oil and gas decommissioning activity and open up opportunities for civilian and military surface and submarine vessel decommissioning.”

The plan is dated 18 December 2017, but Peel Ports confirmed it was still live. “The manufacturing and decommissioning of marine and offshore assets was a part of the original Hunterston Parc strategy as stated in the December 2017 document,” said the company’s Clydeport director, James McSporran.

“And we are still exploring such opportunities as part of the overall mix for the site.” He did not comment further.

Peel Ports is part of the £6 billion Peel Group, which is based in Manchester and has property, transport and energy businesses. Along with Hunterston, it also runs ports in London, Manchester, Liverpool, Dublin, Great Yarmouth and Heysham.

There is absolutely no need for decommissioning to take place in a location where significant environmental damage is all but inevitable.

Ross Greer, Green MSP

The Scottish Greens, who obtained the Hunterston plan, called for any decommissioning to be subject to a full environmental impact assessment. They highlighted that the site was close to the Southannan Sands nature conservation area, protected for its marine wildlife.

“I struggle to see how either oil rig decommissioning or the disassembly of nuclear submarines and their reactors could possibly pass such an environmental assessment,” said the Green MSP for the West of Scotland, Ross Greer.

“We should be thinking seriously about the job-creation opportunities in decommissioning but there is absolutely no need for it to take place in a location where significant environmental damage is all but inevitable.”

He added: “Scotland isn’t short of more suitable places to do this and far better options are certainly available for Hunterston.”

The 50-strong group of nuclear free-local authorities (NFLA) in the UK pointed out that prolonged public consultations had resulted in agreement that decommissioning should only take place at Rosyth and Devonport.

“If Peel Ports is lobbying for a change in that policy to undertake this work at Hunterston port, we would be concerned,” said NFLA Scotland’s convenor, SNP Glasgow councillor, Feargal Dalton.

There were “complicated and potentially hazardous transport issues of moving submarines from the east to the west coast of Scotland, and the required level of expertise to do this,” he argued.

“It would also require a new consultation process at a time when the last one took years to deliver. I doubt the Ministry of Defence would like to reopen that process – and if they do, we and others will robustly challenge any significant change that increases the hazards to this operation.”

No-one is going to want radioactive submarine hulks anywhere near their community.

Dr Richard Dixon, Friends of the Earth Scotland

Friends of the Earth Scotland accused Peel Ports of being “desperate” to find uses for Hunterston. “No-one is going to want radioactive submarine hulks anywhere near their community,” said the environmental group’s director, Dr Richard Dixon.

“Locals must be appalled that this work could ever be thought acceptable at Hunterston. Defunct nuclear submarine are such a special case they should be decommissioned where they were built.”

Rita Holmes, chair of the local Fairlie Community Council, said: “Nobody who appreciates the dangers of dismantling, treating and packaging nuclear waste would want Peel Ports to be bringing more into Hunterston from elsewhere. We have more than enough to deal with already.”

Hunterston port is within three kilometres of two nuclear power stations. One was shut down in 1990 and is being decommissioned, and the other is due to close in 2021 because of proliferating reactor cracks.

The Scottish Government pointed out that the Minister of Defence (MoD) was responsible for decommissioning nuclear submarines. “We are not aware of any Nuclear Decommissioning Authority plans for nuclear decommissioning activities to commence at Hunterston Parc,” said a government spokesperson.

The MoD didn’t comment directly on Peel Ports plan. But a source suggested that officials were not currently looking at Hunterston as a site for nuclear decommissioning because it didn’t have the right capabilities.

“We remain committed to the safe, secure, and environmentally-friendly dismantling of all our decommissioned nuclear submarines as soon as practicably possible,” said an MoD spokesperson.

“We are currently developing the techniques necessary to meet all safety and sustainability standards and establish a long-term solution that provides best value for money.”

The Ferret reported concerns in April 2019 that the MoD was rethinking plans for disposing of radioactive waste from nuclear submarines. The MoD previously said that work on dismantling one submarine, Swiftsure, had begun at Rosyth in 2016, and that work on dismantling a second, Resolution, would start in 2019.

Peel Ports project plan for Hunterston port

Cover image of Hunterston thanks to iStock/jimmcdowall.

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