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Supportive Bloke

A very well researched article.

The future is bright but the present is a mess as the RN physical infrastructure investment taps were turned to a trickle through the 1990’s onwards.

Big civils projects like these, in historical locations, are not that easy to deliver. Then add nuclear.

It does seem odd to be filling in the large docks needed for the new frigates for SSN and SSBN use when all subs are now based in Scotland and frigates are based out of Devonport. Is it just me or is there an element of the barking mad at play here?


I think it’s a case of excepting the real world.
The workforce for big refits of nuclear submarine lives close to Plymouth. Only a very small proportion would be likely to move to Faslane if the work moved there. The existing workforce in Faslane is experienced in “running repairs” smaller refits and urgent defect rectification. I’m sure given time and money they could be trained to do big refits but it would take decades to build up experience. Managing the transition with a workforce at one end working hard to grow and at the other looking to leave to new jobs would be a huge risk. Given efficient modern undercover facilities for frigates will likely need new buildings why not make best use of the existing docks and workforce at Devonport for sub refits?

Supportive Bloke

I totally agree.

Moving the whole nuclear thing to Rosyth would have been a big ask even back in the 1990’s.

I also agree that using more modern frigate refit sheds should make things more efficient.


Nuclear refit work had been going on in Rosyth decades longer than at Devonport. It was the refit site for HMS Dreadnought — the original one — and the Polaris subs from the 1960s. In 1984, Rosyth was chosen to do the future work because it already had the speciality, including the staff. It continued to undertake major submarine refit work until 1997 when it was sold off. Devonport only started work in 1981. The government took the risk to shift that work down south away from Rosyth. And it was indeed a big ask.

Supportive Bloke

True but I thought that quite a bit of nuclear work was done down south prior to the consolidation?


Yes. Chatham kicked off not long after Rosyth and continued up to 1984. Devonport was still pretty new at that point, but I assume it was supposed to take on some of Chatham’s nuclear workload at least until the extra facilities in Rosyth were completed. Others will know more than I about the split.

Dave Wolfy

The original Dreadnought, nuclear powered?


LOL. The secret nuclear project of the 16th century? They claim the Spanish Armada was blown off course, but really…..

I meant the original nuclear sub of the name.


Since 1553 there have been 12 RN ships named Dreadnought incl the one under construction

A slinger

Trust me the skill base at Devonport has been seriously depleted, look at the drop loads all over the press not to mention what didn’t make it into print.


In retrospect, the 1993 decision to consolidate from the two sites to Devonport was two sandwiches short of a picnic. It was said to save the between £250m-£260m estimate to complete the new facilities at Rosyth (already £150m into construction). The government claimed that as Devonport and its contractors, DML, estimated that it would cost only £160 million to refurbish existing facilities, it would actually save £100m. Rosyth then countered saying rather than build new, it could refurbish its own facilities for £147 million. A pointless race to the bottom. However, they had already lost.

It was pointed out in the Lords that refurbishment costs invariably overrun significantly [well no sh*t] and a dual option of Rosyth for subs and Devonport for surface vessels was the logical one. Others stated that nuclear submarine facilities needed to remain at both sites. Of many participating in the debate only one, Lord Weir (chairman of a large engineering company, a partner in Devonport Dockyard), did not argue so. All others were for one or other of the dual options. Contribution were of the nature: “There cannot be an argument because the facts are so overwhelmingly in favour of keeping both Rosyth and Devonport.”

However Vicount Cranborne, Defence Minister summed up:

“…we can see no overwhelming strategic reason to keep two nuclear dockyards and we have therefore concluded that we should in future concentrate nuclear work at one site.”

He also claimed:

“I understood the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, to suggest that the Devonport bid does not include an emergency dock. I am informed, and I believe it to be true, that it does include an emergency dock.”

That latter makes it seem to me the government already had prejudged the options and were unwilling to look closely. Once Devonport had become the preferred option for nuclear, everything else followed. By 1997, when work began, the target costs for reburbishing the facilities of Devonport were just shy of £400m.

In August 2002 project costs were estimated to total £933 million. And still no emergency dock.

If you need to read all the excuses as to why it cost so much I suggest reading “The Construction of Nuclear Submarine Facilities at Devonport, Report by the Comptroller and Auditor-General, HC 90 Session 2002-03, 6 December 2002.” But it’s all the same-old same-old BS.

Last edited 5 months ago by Jon
stephen ball

Could this be an effect of the peace dividend. eg the defence budget went down but cost of infrastructure etc normally stays the same.

So the lower your defence budget the higher the percentage get’s spent on infrastructure.


While your point about infrastructure increasing as a proportion of budget is doubtlessly true, it can’t account for an absolute increase in costs from £160m to £933m in less than a decade.


I suspect the key phrase (repeated from the article) here is “ever-increasing safety standards”. Once you go down the ALARP route, quantifying and mitigating risks gets very expensive, very quickly.

Also worth remembering that Chatham also conducted SSN refits from the late 60s through to mid-80s. I’m old enough to remember the RD57 fiasco. It would probably have been a better bet than Devonport – in fact the two concrete plinths for what would have been the docks were still visible up until the noughties when spoil from the work to make 1 dock suitable for the carrier build was dumped there and later filled over when Babcock fancied turning that part of the dockyard into a container port.


How big a part do you think the long running antagonism to the Tory party in Scotland played in the decision?


Probably not too much. At the time, Options for Change (aka the Peace dividend) was all the rage and because the nasty Red Banner Northern fleet had largely gone away, there was a perceived decreasing need for Naval Facilities in the North.

Which is why Rosyth Naval Base closed in 95(-ish?) and the dockyard was run down. In the late 90s / early noughties it was a ghost town compared to now. It remains a bit of an oddity, the only dockyard without an associated naval base.

The whole base and dockyard infrastructure issue has been in flux for the best part of thirty years. It’s not much more than fifteen years ago that people thought we could close Portsmouth as a naval base.


“The Department has partly funded poor performance by Devonport Management Limited (DML), the prime contractor, met the cost increases resulting from nuclear safety regulation, and borne the cost of all other risks originally transferred to DML”

DML had supposedly had the risks transferred to it and it was called a fixed-price contract, but that liability was capped at £35m, so anything over that was paid by the MoD.

“The project was very large and it was the first time that DML had handled a project of this size”

I think we are getting the picture, right?

“The Department originally took a ‘hands off’ approach to the

management of the project.”

With it being fixed price, there was obviously no need to supervise.

“The Department had no contractual right to information on DML’s cost forecasts”

And DML didn’t tell them what was going on. The Nuclear Installations Inspectorate for policy reasons would only talk to DML and refused to engage with the MoD until late 1998, because DML was the nuclear licencee not the MoD. So even if it had wanted to oversee, the MoD would have been completely blindsided during the first couple of years.

“The Department only became aware of cost increases when DML began to submit a series of claims in 1999. … [joint studies] revealed during 2000 that DML’s costs were rising month on month, from £585 million in February 2000 to £730 million in December 2000, a 25% increase.”

I’m sure there were plenty of people in the MOD trying to find out and raising the issue. Just not the right people. We are back to the old problem of willfully bind people in charge making sure that nothing is seen to go wrong on their watch, which they hope will be over before the brown stuff hits the fan.

“optimism bias”

“lack of contingency”

Yes, yes. Enough!

Last edited 5 months ago by Jon
Peter (Irate Taxpayer)


As always, yours are a very good set of points.

You have however skipped over the huge consequences of a few key issues…

The first of those underlying technical issues used to be that, up until the very late 1980’s, the Nuclear Licensing regime did not apply to the UK armed forces. That was because they were all covered by Crown Immunity.

Thus, throughout the UK military’s nuclear programme during all of the (original) Cold War, the armed services made up their own safety rules…and… just to make it worse….most of their activities were covered by very-extreme secrecy. Anything with the word “nuclear” in it was automatically “top secret”. Some rules were excellent: others were crap!

From the 1960’s until late 1980’s, the Royal Navy generally followed the USN regulations. Enforced by Rickover, the USN’s atomic regulations were extremely tough. However, as many US nuclear facilities are quite deliberately located in very remote areas of the US of A, their safety requirements for their fixed nuclear infrastructure needed to be much less onerous than here in the far-more-densely populated UK (i.e. Idaho has a surprising large number of experimental nuclear power plants)

Thus, at the end of the 1980’s and early 1990’s, four things happened almost simultaneously:

  • End of cold war: so peace dividend (and a lot of the experts soon changed careers)
  • End of crown immunity
  • Tightening up of all nuclear rules following the Chernobyl disaster (which itself played a big part in ending the Cold War much sooner than everybody expected)
  • The ending of the UK civil nuclear programme (Sizewell B was the last power station constructed, starting in the early 1990’s)


  1. As N-a-B has quite-corrected noted; submarine refits were once carried out at Chatham. That was never nuclear licensed site and the dockyard itself was in the middle of a densely populated area. It took a long while to clean up the mess….
  2. Then the UK’s smallest nuclear reactor was – and this was a “believe it or not item” – uncovered as having been secretly installed in the basement of the Royal Navy College in Greenwich, near central London!. That long-running small “training” reactor was only revealed, to both the nuclear regulator and, soon afterwards the general public, when the Navy moved out of Greenwich into JSCSC! (RN said: we don’t need it anymore!) That caused a lot of comments around Whitehall, mostly along the general lines of: “what were they thinking of!!!????”


The impacts of these changes was very apparent as the Faslane / Coulport project developed through its the various phases.

Initially it had had been severely delayed because of finding unexpected mountains of asbestos all over the site (from old shipbreaking activities). However then the design were all changed to comply with the tighter post-Chernobyl design rules. That meant endless redesigns and answering the eight year old’s favourite question “Why? (Note: the eight year old’s were mostly working for RN, MOD and HM Treasury).


Thus, picking up on your key points about Devonport:

  1. In the early 1990’s, when Devonport was privatised, the DML management actually had no experience whatsoever of understanding – let alone knowing how to comply with – the nuclear licensing rules! It was the beginning of a completely new era for them (Some should have been wearing L Plates on their ID badges!)
  2. As you correctly note, the MOD were kept in the dark. However whether that was an accidental or deliberate policy – because certain ambitious officers were keeping their heads down below the parapet until they were moved onto another posting – I really could not confirm nor deny! (i.e. you might well be right..!!)
  3. I also know full well, from the most senior HSE-NNI inspector (a personal friend) who used to “police” and certify the submarine’s at Devonport that he was – and my next phrase is putting it politely – “rather less than impressed with DML’s management’s understanding of what was both wanted and needed to comply with nuclear safety rules”

I would add that, in the recent photos that Navy Lookout has just published for this article, I have already spotted a least half a dozen items that I personally am surprised are allowed by the dockyard management to occur on a nuclear licensed site.

Thus it appears to me that DML Dockyard Management should still be wearing their “L” plates on their lanyards.

Regards Peter The Irate Taxpayer


This is a fantastic response and one of the reasons this site is so valuable, on top of a good article, to give knowledgeable insight into some of the decisions taken at the time. Your comments deserve an article of there own!


Other similar low power research reactors was at Queen Mary College in central London, Manchester University and for Scottish Universities at East Kilbryde

Dave Wolfy

Sizewell B was being built in 1988.
I did the radios on the tower cranes.


Rosyth is used for the storage and dismantling -(low level and high level waste to come) of nuclear submarines under Babcock control
Rosyth Dockyard was used for the refit, repair and maintenance of operational nuclear submarines from the 1960s until 2003. As each submarine reached the end of its operational life, it was defueled and decommissioned onsite. Phase 1 of the decommissioning is the removal of low-level waste from the decommissioned submarines.’


Not sure what point you’re trying to make?

Well aware of what happens to the seven boats at Rosyth thanks. Not least from having been aboard one or two of them….


It seems some ( not specifically you) have suggested that the upgrade at Rosyth for nuclear dismantling never happed/cancelled. And yet ONR says differently.
This gives the general reader some balance from the other comments

Supportive Bloke

Dry informative – I learned quite a lot from that and reconnected with a few memories!

Peter (Irate Taxpayer)

First of all, a very well done to Navy Lookout for an excellent article. Superb!

Nuclear Expertise

One of the big issues not mentioned here is the amount of nuclear engineering expertise in the UK – both professional design engineers and also key technical / skilled trades – has dramatically declined since the end of the 1980’s.This has been for two reasons:

  • Firstly the decline in the overall numbers of submarines in RN service
  • Secondly, as power stations close and decommission, the concurrent decline of the civilian nuclear sector (what we often used to call the “other client”). This is only now being built up again after a twenty year gap; for example training / upskilling welders at Hinckley C power station.

One of the very few things that will dramatically help out the RN’s submarine fleet is IF the government gives the go-ahead to the many civilian small modular reactors proposed by Rolls Royce (another government decision which is late!). That will really help build up the skills base.


In order to provide properly resilience for the submarine fleet it is probably always going to be essential go have two entirely separate sites: both with full drydock facilities.

Faslane / Coulport

Judging by the photos, it has not changed much in the last three decades!

These two sites really need to be considered as single entity

Geographically, the Falsane / Coulport base is there for two very good reasons: it is close to the deep water of the North Atlantic and at one end of the the vital GUIK gap.

Then, especially for the Trident boats, being able to arm “on site” is vital. Loading nukes would never happen nowadays at Plymouth!

I would query the assertion that this base is “remote”. The rather large city of Glasgow is only thirty miles away (Clydebank only 20 miles) and even Rosyth (Edinburgh) is only two hours away. Both cities are well known for engineering and shipbuilding expertise.

The Navy could do itself a really big favor at Faslane – with both its own crews and also the huge local workforce – by asking Network Rail to build a railway station at Falsane and extending the fast suburban service up from Helenburgh. That was proposed back in the 1980’s and (apparently) once again quite recently: however nothing ever seems to happen! Abut two thousand people live and work there: which is more than enough to justify the small investment. That alone would remove the “impression” of remoteness.

It was always something of a mystery why Falsane never had a “proper” drydock built back in the 1980’s: one instead of the ship lift (or the “Sh**lift ” as it was known in our design office was I was working on it as a new graduate). The only long term solution for proper maintenance at Falsane is to build a proper drydock – not mess about with another ship lift.

Furthermore, as Supportive Bloke quite rightly notes, in the most recent proposals the MOD/RN is making life very difficult for itself: by insisting (in its recent tenders) that major civil engineering contactors carry out massive civil engineering work inside the maximum security areas. As Supportive Bloke quite rightly notes: why oh why do they keep making this very basic mistake?????. It adds many many millions to every bill – and delays everything by years

Finally, I have always believed that key issue with Falsane has always been that many navy officers, especially the most senior ones, simply don’t like to be too far away from the centers of “political power” in London, Portsmouth (especially) and Plymouth. Therefore investment in Faslane, to make it a submarine “center of excellence”, has always been put on the backburner….. Hence the real reason why the Navy is in a mess today…

Submarine Disposal

As Navy Lookout has quite-rightly said on so many occasions, the Navy has made an even bigger bodge of disposing of its old submarines than it has on maintaining them.

Simply because it is near to Sellafield….. the right place for doing this thankless task must surely be Barrow-in-Furness. Please build an all-new submarine disposal facility at Barrow!

It would be quite-easy to take each old sub up to Cumbria on a semi-submersibles ship, then – one at at time – cut the old subs into large pieces. Then just send the entire reactor section by road up to Sellafield for final burial

That alone would release a huge amount of land and docks at Devonport. It would also stop the expensive nonsense of tying up a skilled workforce cutting up old subs into tiny pieces.


It was always a very bizarre decision, coming on top on many others, to demolish the working dry dock and replace it on the same site!

Devonport still has vast acreages of underused land. One of these areas, especially to the south, should have been used as vacant land to build an all-new dock. That would have left the old one in service until the new one was completed. It would have also made the new one much chepaer and easier to construct (ie. Supportive Bloke again!)

Mobile Teams

In the commercial ship maintenance world, techniques have moved on since the 1980’s.
However the Navy is still wedded to “one workforce: one dockyard”.

Why not transfer key worker by plane (weekly) between Falsane and Devonport? ; something which would certainly assist several key maintenance programme’s. That is now SOP in the commercial world


I am of the view that this omni-shambles is yet another example of the consequences of the absence of professional engineering expertise within the Royal Navy: especially near very top.

The Submarine Delivery Agency suffers from a similar lack of professional competence.

Thus they have fritted plenty of money away on storage of long-dead subs; major refits (instead of replacements) refreshing worn-out facilities etc = when they should have got on and done the job properly in the first place.

In the nuclear business, which is by definition a long-term business: buying new kit works works out cheaper and more reliable in the long run!


No shortage of this key commodity!

The submarine fleet uses up between one-third and one half the Royal Navy’s total budget every year.

regards Peter The Irate Taxpayer


Well said!

Andrew Deacon

Minor point on weekly plane flights is that Plymouth Airport has been closed for many years and has no chance of reopening. That means Newquay, Exeter and many head to Bristol.


Charter flights at monday morning fri day evening

The Whale Island Zoo Keeper

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The Whale Island Zoo Keeper

I was being a bit silly. But the RN has bases at each end of the country and a small personnel pool. Facilitating moving them about more easily might ease things……..


I did the first T42 refit back in the late 80s.
10 days on 4 days off 9 days on 5 days off.
Flew Edinburgh to LHR and coach to Portsmouth.
It’s do able but it’s not sustainable especially as we were paying for our own flights and then claiming it back.

Rosyth’s issue then and I suspect its still the same was that nobody wanted to be there for a refit and that included the Polaris Boats. Middle of nowhere. Really, really bad accom and awful traveling to and from your (then) base port areas

stephen ball

seems like we need another dry dock for 5 overall. maybe build one where the carpark is?

when one need’s upgrading we only have 3, which is not enough.


Given the size of the Sub fleet 3 dry docks (+1 for decommissioning) in Devonport, together with a ship lift and 2 floating dry docks in Faslane sounds plenty. The refit work in Devonport is planned years in advance so shouldn’t be a problem. 3 sites for out of water maintenance in Faslane is far more than has been available in the past. Money for any area of defence isn’t unlimited and needs to provide realistic VFM.


Good reminder of how important the unglamorous side of naval warfare and fleet operation is. It’s too easy to fixate on the specs or numbers of this or that warship and lose sight of the implications of those decisions. The biggest surprise for me was to realise how changes to safety regulations can have such an impact on fleet support and operation.

Armchair Admiral

I believe availability of maintenance ance assets in the USA is also an issue for their submarine operations.AA


And for pretty much the same reason. Post cold war peace dividend followed by GWOT focus on counter insurgency. The return of great power competition has come as a complete surprise to military chiefs and even more so policy makers. The issues we’re having are repeated across the west.

The Whale Island Zoo Keeper

It’s across their whole fleet.
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Unsurprisingly the story of fleet support infrastructure appears to mirror that for the surface fleet and RFA. Currently stretched and struggling to meet operational requirements due to past decisions to cut budgets and delaying the start of projects…

But a lot of work currently underway which should solve these and provide a much better situation in the future. The question is, how quickly can this brighter future be delivered given the slide to greater global instability and the increasing decrepitude of current resources (eg T23).

The Whale Island Zoo Keeper

Investing in nuclear submarines is more than an investment in defence, it is an investment in the industrial base of Britain and therefore the whole economy.

It doesn’t surprise me that this escapes the residents of the Westminster Village.


“Number 11 Dock has been halved in size by the insertion of a wall to strengthen the adjacent dock with capacity for nothing larger than a harbour tug. With 10 Dock devoted to submarines, Devonport now only has 8 Dock and the 3 covered dry docks in the Frigate Support Centre available for surface ships of frigate size and above. The covered docks will not be large enough for Type 31 or Type 26 frigates so various options for another large dock infrastructure project are being considered.”

According to Kevin Russel-Young, Babcock’s program director for infrastructure projects the 11 and 12 Docks will be devolopeed for “the new type frigates”. I would guess that the old wall between 11/12 Docks will be demolished and 12 Dock will be used for Type 26.

Oliver Grundy

Yeah, I also have seen articles stating that expanded 12 dock is to be used for frigate maintenance – anyone know which one of these 2 statements is correct?


Looking a a map that looks like a bad idea if it’s for refits rather than just for emergencies and quick jobs.
12 Dock is very isolated, even if there is space to build a shed over it there won’t be much space for workshops, stores, offices and workers facilities after the nuclear dock has taken the space it needs.


GDEB & Bollinger have got a contract to design and build Floating Dry Docks that can accommodate the new USN Columbia class SSBNs. Subject to acceptance by the UK nuclear regulators (probably not as simple as it should be) It should be possible, at low risk, to build another in the UK

Peter (Irate Taxpayer)


I will give you a score of a C+ for this suggestion.

Unfortunately this it is not (quite) what’s needed to do the job in hand……

These particular Floating Dry Docks are intended for use at the Electric Boat Company in Groton (a US town which properly lives up to its name!). These are not really intended for maintenance. These are intended for floating out the new-build Columbia boats and then lowering them, for the first time, very carefully down into the “grimey bathwater”.

The nearest equivalent here in the UK is the ship lift at BAe Barrow: which does effectively the same thing for each new Astute / Dreadnought boat.

Thus these type of drydocks are not realty suitable for heavy maintenance and are definitely not suitable for big refits: especially those refits involving “twiddly bits” in and around the nuclear reactors.

So, nice idea, BUT!


I have always been a big fan of the traditional concrete “hole-in-the-ground drydock”. It has the massive advantage of simplicity:

  • Submarine towed in.
  • Dock gates shut.
  • Water extracted: soon ready to start work.
  • Reverse process upon completion (so two days after the last coat of paint has dried)

Provided that you do not attempt to built your new drydock on very wet mud (note to DML: a very big hint has just been given here!) it is also quite remarkable easy to design a big block of reinforced concrete for absolutely anything that HSE-NNI may throw at you as a “design requirement for ALRAP”.

In marked contrast, raising several thousand tons of Barrow-built metalwork vertically upwards (by say ten metres) is, frankly, very hard work: whichever way you try to do it.
Thus there are huge complexities and (often forgotten) very big maintenance costs for either:

  1. the pump mechanisms on floating docks
  2. or, on ship lifts, (sh**lifts) maintaining all the numerous hoisting systems (especially synchronizing the bl****dy things – such that one hoist does not have an “unplanned tea-break” on the one, and only, day when all the other have decided to work)

Thus traditionally-built drydocks abide by the key engineering “KISS” principle: (Keep In Simple Stupid).


To return to the key point of my earlier posts. For heavy maintenance and a big submarine refits, what is needed for a proper drydock (or ideally two) is:

  • Key Requirements:
  • Nuclear licensed (so designed from first principles for seismic and flooding ALARP)
  • Surrounding by a high security fence, such that the nuclear licensed secure site is physically well-separated from the remaining dockyard. Access only to cleared personnel. This key principle makes the whole facility dedicated, and thus makes the whole thing far easier to manage: not least it to prove to the HSE-NNI that you you are properly controlling the site.
  • Heavy duty overhead cranage (not poxy Tonka-toy sized 2T cranes!)
  • Plenty of physical space down inside the drydock, all around the submarine (to give space to insert and extract “big bits”)
  • Lorry access , down via a long ramp, straight down into the bottom of the drydock (because this significantly improves all trade’s productivity)
  • Wide span covered roof: both for workforce comfort and, especially, to boost productivity. (Remember welding requires heat: and if its too cold, that vital welding rate dramatically slows down!) This also stops Mr V.Putin’s satellites spotting how frequently the DML and Faslane workforce have their tea-breaks.
  • Good quality “all round” white lighting. White cladding needed on the inside of the big shed. These are necessary so that so the workforce can actually see what they are doing (without overdosing on a diet of carrots).Dramatically improves quality control and avoids expensive rework.
  • Logistic centre nearby: one where suppliers own driver’s can drop their loads off quickly and safely: all without handing to MOD-PLOD all their personal details (up to and including the driver’s inside leg measurement)
  • Workforce to have all welfare – car parking, canteens, training centers, first aid and medical monitoring etc – all within the secure area. That allows a full days work to get done, all day, everyday.
  • Proper control room and management suite: for coordinating all activities, including both security and all emergencty responses
  • Proper segregated walkways all around the site: to separate vehicles from workforce
  • Last and by now means least. The Acid Test!. Is there within the Nuclear Licensed site, a proper system for segregating, storing and identifying all waste (Note: which I have never seen done properly at Barrow or DML or Faslane)


The key lesson from many projects – and Falsane / Coulport back in the 1980’s/1990’s was a prize example this key principle – that with big self-contained new-build civil engineering projects, you get a lot of “Bang for your buck” when you design and build it on a fresh site to a design that is fit for purpose (so not severely compromised by “bodging” an existing facility)

Thus a completely new build submarine dry dock (or preferably two) to the south of the existing Devonport factory (i.e. on the ample vacant land) would have been far quicker and cheaper to build – by a competent civil engineering contractor – than what is now happening on site at DML with Babcock

A the present time DML are spending over billion quid of taxpayers money on a facility that will ultimately, – well, somehow, sort of, like – eventually do the job. However it will be nothing like as good as one which had been designed, on a fresh sheet of paper, to do the job properly.

Thus we can expect that every single future submarine refit to take longer and thus it will cost more. Furthermore, during that refit, the submarine will not be out patrolling in the wet and grimily: because the matelots will be zig-zagging along Union Street.



There is nothing new under the sun with this particular issue. Navy Lookout is only the most-recent!

This link is one from Parliament back in 1908; spoken by an MP at the very height of the original Dreadnought era:

Kaiser Bill also remarked on this issue at about the same time. However simply because I failed to take a German “O” level” back in the early 1980’s, I will have paraphrase what he said:

“We here in German design our battleships to fight. Only then do we design the drydocks. Over in Britain they design all of their new battleships to squeeze into their existing drydocks. Madness!”

Over one hundred years on: the RN has still not learnt this important lesson!

regards Peter The Irate Taxpayer

Peter Feltham

Sounds like the usual Navy cock-up.MOD (as always) grossly incompetant,together with poor quality senior navy commanders and totally pathetic politicians.

Supportive Bloke

Navy guys don’t understand large civil engineering project – to them it is a concrete hole in the ground with a shed.

Senior civil servants don’t understand large civil engineering project – to them it is a concrete hole in the ground with a shed.

etc etc

The reality is that if you start trying to modify any complex ancient existing structure things. There are a lot of unseen and unseeable risks that you cannot contract for. The idea that anyone can do a fixed price contract for this is for the birds.

Then add base security, slowing everything down.

Then add base operations having to continue and the H&S nightmares that created with the interactions managed.

Then add live nuclear site…

You get the picture?

So if you want to do things at fixed costs you simplify things as much as possible.

So, if you take a piece of cleared land and you let the contractor check it thoroughly you can pass the risks and costs over to them.

As an experienced construction director I would expect the cost difference of clean land vs reworking old nuclear certified docks to be 5x at least.


Rosyth Dockyard was stabbed in the back and slowly chocked to death by Malcom Rifkind in his decision to award submarine re fitting to only one dockyard. this was a huge betrayal of the workforce for which he will never be forgiven, he put all the eggs in one basket and the result of this is clear to see today some limited capacity should have been retained at Rosyth with its large dry docks nuclear approved pinned to bedrock ( can Devonport say the same) ,even after all these years it still leaves a bad taste in the mouth. the re fitting facility at Rosyth would have been the best in the world and the safest ,instead we were left with a huge hole in the ground and a daily reminder of what might have been . however despite of MOD’s best efforts Rosyth lives on building ships ,so you can keep the radiation at Devonport good luck.


Rifkind was a lawyer before entering the Commons so wouldnt know one dockyard from another. He would have just said ‘cut the budget and make it snappy’ , his Spads and MOD would have done the details and didnt care how it happened

Supportive Bloke

Terrifying the idea of doing nuclear handling in that open environment with a dry dock designed like that.

Zero chance of a proper clean up if anything goes wrong.

Zero containment topside….

That makes the Winscale (Cockcroft) Plutonium Piles look like a good idea.

The Whale Island Zoo Keeper

It is very, um, open. Scarily open………


Dont understand submarine nuclear reactors do you. What are you expecting …a meltdown or explosion. The reactor is cold remember and the fuel rods removed.
A “shed” wouldnt be any help for your overactive imagination.
The subs reactor compartment is its own containment structure

I didnt mention this in relation to our Irate Taxpayer getting worked up about the Greenwich reactor as he had very useful information. But the silly scare stories dont help.


Some more ‘scarily open ‘ submarine overhaul/refuelling . ROFL

Supportive Bloke

They won’t be refuelling and refuelling the reactor in there like that.

What was scary about Chatham was re and de furling was done in the open using jury rigged kit.

But I doubt you have ever worked in a nuclear certified environment?

Nothing scary about doing some hull work in the open even if it is the enemy of productivity and quality which is rather essential in submarine work.


Yes it was . Victorious refuelling overhaul


Vanguard at Devonport just a few years back.. sunny side up

The Whale Island Zoo Keeper

Vanguard’s refit is the last one I would choose as an example of good practice.

Supportive Bloke


I do understand how the kettle works very well thnx.

BTW how do you think the fuel rods were removed? That’s right by a winch from the scaffold under the tarpaulins.

At Chatham there were no specialist facilities.

What happens if one is dropped and fragments?

Or if the scaffolder didn’t do up the clips properly?

The withdrawn fuel rod containment can’t have been very solid as there is no high capacity crane on that dock.

If you drop something inside an appropriately designed building the *dust* is contained.

If you drop it in the open it isn’t contained.

There FIFY.

Supportive Bloke

“Dont understand submarine nuclear reactors do you. What are you expecting …a meltdown or explosion.”

Nope – because that is not the risk that is being mitigated here.

“The reactor is cold remember and the fuel rods removed.”

  • how do you remove the fuel rods from a sealed 2 or 3 reactor?
  • you do realise that a reactor remains thermally hot for a long time after the initial reaction is stopped by the control rods
  • nuclear reactions are a cascade – you can stop the first part of the cascade with the control rods but you need to let the reactor simmer down for quite a while
  • a submarine reactor is ultimately cooled by stuff called sea water. When you put a sub in a dry dock there is hopefully not much or any sea water water. You with this so far? So, as the reactor is still hot both thermally and otherwise cooling water needs to provided by shoreside facilities.

“A “shed” wouldnt be any help for your overactive imagination.”

A properly designed shed helps a lot if you have a radioactive steam leak or you have some mildly radioactive dust that gets about. It is very, very, very unlikely but the more things that are fully planned for and mitigated the better. It is called a risks reduction strategy.

Inside a compliant nuclear facility you have

  • NBC style washdown built in so that a building can be de-contaminated without exposing anyone. This is why I was a bit surprised at the amount of ‘stuff’ lying around in the photos as it is a vital discipline/housekeeping (what it is actually called by HMNI) to not have ‘stuff’ about as that makes any potential clean up harder.
  • A drainage system that is isolated, via a filter system to sumps, so that when you do wash down or fight a fire there is no chance of contaminated water getting in watercourses or drains. At the very least you can test the water from the sump before it is discharged.

“The subs reactor compartment is its own containment structure”

  • In your fictional world when it is defuelled how much containment is derived from that once it is opened?
  • Do you think there was a reason why UK went for sealed for life reactors?
  • The purpose of the crazy thick concrete dry dock is that you cannot have a melt through accident.

“I didnt mention this in relation to our Irate Taxpayer getting worked up about the Greenwich reactor as he had very useful information. ”

The Irate Taxpayer is 100% correct. Very few people knew about the Argonaut in Wren’s Masterpiece. Except the Bond producers ironically……that is a story for another day.

“But the silly scare stories dont help.”

  • I am very pro nuclear.
  • Chatham was stripped of nuclear work for very sound reasons – it was never compliant even back then
  • Pointing out silly things done historically is not a scare story – you just would never, ever, even think of doing it like that these days.

Sealed for life was because of the technical advances from US naval reactors which was shared with UK. First came the midlife only refuelling which didnt work out that way for a while.
Its cheaper but the sub is bigger and more expensive to build
The French as you know , with LEU, go the other way with still quite frequent refuelling’s ( and smaller subs), maybe every 10 years for their subs.
De Gaulle has done 2 refuelling’s [2007 and 2017]

Doesnt make sense as you suggest having ultrathick concrete dock walls for ‘containment’ unless the concrete covers the roof as well. The NL stories suggest its for seismic reasons. I understand the refuelling process is very safe, which is why its done in Devonport but the nuclear and conventional weapons are removed and held at Faslane.
Putting the fuel rods in or out of the sub reactor , is just the final part of their journey through a busy Britain

Within the core, there are fuel rods filled with radioactive pellets. Most commonly, these pellets are made of enriched uranium dioxide, which is made into a powder and then turned into small ceramic-like pellets using high pressure and heating (a process known as sintering).

The HMS Astute fuel pellets are filled with helium to better transfer heat and prevent overheating. It also contains clad in a corrosion-resistant alloy with a low neutron absorption rate so that it does not absorb the outgoing neutrons and prevent the fission process. -AZO


How many people knew about the same Jason low power training reactors at Queen Mary London University or Manchester University, presumably also in their basements


Have you ever been a student there or inside the buildings?

Peter (Irate Taxpayer)

Supportive Bloke

The NBC analogy you have just used (above) sums it all up very nicely

It is very easy to forget that Nuclear, Biological and Chemical “nasties” are all classified within the same TLA category = for a very good reason!

regards Peter The Irate taxpayer


Just more corroboration for the plain truth that any effective navy is only as good as its supporting infrastructure, especially ordnance and mechanical maintenance. Even an otherwise too small Royal Navy would be much more effective in an actual hot war scenario if it was properly maintained and had sufficient stockpiles of fuel and munitions. Unfortunately, however ….

The Whale Island Zoo Keeper

One of the drivers that sustained the Industrial Revolution was outfitting the Royal Navy.

The government opted out of sustaining a serious technology base for defence with the 1957 White Paper. Too far behind now.

Last edited 5 months ago by The Whale Island Zoo Keeper
Allan Desmond

Just every level of the tinny tiny little~ always broken ~ Royal Navy is so very depressing.

Richard Rose

An interesting article with regard to the total lack of forethought and planning evident from both the government and MoD. I am not sure why the gratuitous insult to Jeremy Corbyn was included but I suppose he is still the bete noire to right wing dinosaurs. Perhaps they should vent their spleen on better targets such as people getting huge performance bonuses despite submarines being delivered 17 months late.