Warning of problems for ageing nuclear sub fleet

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Britain’s ageing fleet of hunter-killer nuclear-powered submarines is suffering technical problems because of the decision to extend their service beyond their originally planned life-span, an official watchdog’s report has warned.

The report, released by the Ministry of Defence, issued an “amber” warning about the Trafalgar-class subs, but stressed an “adequate” standard of safety has been maintained to protect crews, defence workers, the public and the environment.

The Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator’s report for 2012/13 also raised a “red” alert about the shortage of trained experts available to the Royal Navy to maintain and repair reactors, and warned the situation is likely to worsen as competition for staff increases with the expected construction of a new generation of civil nuclear plants.

“Pressure from the civil nuclear market will continue to drive vulnerability in this small and highly skilled group. Safety has not been compromised but the loss of resilience increases the likelihood of programme delays.”

The report did not specify the technical problems suffered by the fleet of five Trafalgar-class subs – between 22 and 29 years old – operated by the Royal Navy.

But with increasing age, concerns can be expected around cracks in metal or pipes and leaks of radioactive material. The oldest of the subs, HMS Tireless, suffered a leak of radio-active coolant from its reactor during operations off the west coast of Scotland in February this year.

Delays in the construction of the Astute-class subs have meant the retirement of the Trafalgars being put off, with the last one not expected to be mothballed until 2022.

The report warned that the Vanguard class of subs which carry Britain’s Trident nuclear deterrent can also be expected “to exhibit plant ageing effects as a result of the Strategic Defence and Security Review decision to extend their life to the late 2020s and early 2030s”.

A Ministry of Defence spokesman said: “We would not operate any submarine unless it was safe to do so and this report, the purpose of which is to inform best practice, acknowledges that we are taking the necessary action to effectively manage the technical issues raised by the regulator.”