HMS Tireless, one of the aging UK's nuclear submarines suffered a coolant leak in February 2013

Lack of experts to fix ageing nuclear submarines

Ageing nuclear submarines and a lack of experts in the field is a growing problem for the Royal Navy, a report of UK’s Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator has revealed.

The Royal Navy doesn’t have enough properly trained experts to fix the ageing reactors on Britain’s fleet of nuclear submarines, which is starting to suffer technical problems after its service has been extended beyond the original lifespan.

Moreover, the situation is set to worsen if the plans to foster UK’s nuclear electricity generating infrastructure go ahead. Building new nuclear power plants would increase the demand for nuclear experts, already a rare species in the UK’s job market, forcing the Royal Navy to compete with the civil sector to keep and find new skilled staff.

"The ability of the department to sustain a sufficient number of suitably competent personnel is a long-standing issue and is again raised as the principal threat to safety in the defence nuclear programme in the medium term," said the report.

While the lack of experts in the nuclear field has been given a 'red alert' by the report’s authors, the emerging technical issues plaguing the ageing submarines have received an 'amber warning' status.

Although the report has not specified the type of technical problems the five nuclear powered Trafalgar-class submarines are facing, the authors considered the standards of safety applied to protect the crews, defence workers, the public and the environment as “adequate”.

The most probable issues that might be expected to occur in the 22 to 29 year-old submarines were said to be cracks in metal and pipes that could result in leakage of radioactive material. In February this year, the oldest of the submarines – HMS Tireless, suffered a leak of radioactive coolant from its reactor during operations off the west coast of Scotland. According to the report, such issues might be directly related to the ageing of the technology.

The service of the Trafalgar submarines had to be prolonged in the wake of delays in the construction of the successor Astute submarine fleet. "Due to build delays with the Astute class, there has been a requirement to extend the Trafalgar class beyond their original design life in order to maintain the SSN (ship submarine nuclear) flotilla at a fully operational level,” said the report.

But the hunter-killer Trafalgar fleet is not the only one at risk of critical failures. The report said problems might soon occur also in the case of the ballistic missiles carrying Vanguard nuclear submarines. The service of the Vanguard fleet has recently been extended to the late 2020s and early 2030s.

In response to the report, UK’s Ministry of Defence issued a statement assuring that all care is being taken to maintain the safety of the fleet. "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,” said the MoD’s spokesman.

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