Environmental harm: nuclear weapons deployment

This extract from our report Nuclear Weapons, the Climate and Our Environment details the environmental damage caused by the deployment of Britain’s nuclear weapons.


Large amounts of radioactive waste are generated by the production and maintenance of the UK’s nuclear warheads at the Atomic Weapons Establishment in Aldermaston.  The site currently stores about four million litres of waste, according to Scientists for Global Responsibility, some of which is held in old, degraded containers. [1]

The Office of Nuclear Regulation has placed the Aldermaston site under “special measures” since 2013 due to ongoing safety and compliance issues,[2] including a leak of tritium gas into a stream.[3]


The Faslane Naval Base in Argyll and Bute, Scotland, handles liquid nuclear waste from the reactors used to power the UK’s nuclear submarines, as well as solid waste from the nearby nuclear weapons depot at Coulport. After treatment, liquid waste is discharged into the Gare Loch; a sea loch that is popular for fishing, sailing and water sports.

In 2019, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) applied to the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) for permission to build a new waste management facility at Faslane, as part of a plan that will see an increase in the amount of radioactive waste discharged into the loch.

Protestors at Faslane on the anniversary of the signing of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in September 2018.

The proposal has drawn condemnation from politicians, experts and civil society organisations.[4] Nuclear Free Local Authorities says that the additional discharges “would result in increased radioactive contamination of the entire Gare Loch, including its flora and fauna, and would result in increased radiation doses to people living in the vicinity of the Loch”.[5] 

Decommissioned nuclear submarines

The UK’s nuclear submarines continue to present an environmental hazard long after they are taken out of service, as they contain spent nuclear fuel and large quantities of radioactive waste.

The MoD has failed to fully decommission any of the 20 nuclear submarines that have been taken out of service since 1980.[6] The delay is due, in part, to the complexity and cost of the decommissioning process and the lack of a permanent disposal site for the submarines’ nuclear waste. At one stage, MoD officials considered dumping the submarines on the seabed off the West coast of Scotland in the hope that “everyone [would] forget about these submarines and that they [would] be allowed to quietly rot away indefinitely”.[7]

It is estimated that the vessels – which are stored at Devonport dockyards, Plymouth, and Rosyth in Fife – still contain 4,500 tonnes of hazardous material.[8] Storage has so far cost taxpayers more than half a billion pounds.[9]

No solution for nuclear waste

Despite extensive research, a scientifically proven, safe and permanent method of disposing of the radioactive waste that is created during nuclear weapons and nuclear power production is yet to be established.[10]

Several countries have plans to build deep geological repositories, where canisters containing the waste would be buried several hundred metres below the ground. However, there are significant uncertainties around the viability of this method.

Moreover, plans to build nuclear waste disposal facilities tend to run into opposition from local people. Understandably, communities are reluctant to host material that presents an environmental and health hazard for thousands of years. As a result, the search for permanent disposal site has stalled for years in several nations, including the UK.[11]

In Australia, Aboriginal people have been fighting against nuclear waste dump proposals, at various locations, for two decades. The federal government is currently pressing ahead with plans for a facility at Napandee, near Kimba on the South Australian Eyre Peninsula, against the wishes of the Barngarla traditional owners.[12]

[1] For more details see S Parkinson, “The environmental impacts of the UK military sector”, p 84 (Scientists for Global Responsibility, May 2020): https://www.sgr.org.uk/publications/environmental-impacts-uk-military-sector.

[2] “AWE will miss 2020 date to leave ‘special measures’” (Nuclear Information Service, 20 November 2019): https://www.nuclearinfo.org/article/awe-aldermaston-awe-burghfield/awe-will-miss-2020-date-leave-%E2%80%98special-measures%E2%80%99.

[3] “AWE atomic weapons site leaks tritium gas into stream” (BBC, 14 October 2013): https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-berkshire-24518372. For an explanation of the dangers of tritium see: https://www.ianfairlie.org/news/the-hazards-of-tritium/.

[4] R Edwards, “Faslane to dump up to 50 times more radioactive waste in the Clyde” (The Ferret, 1 March 2020): https://theferret.scot/radioactive-waste-faslane-clyde/.

[5] https://theferret.scot/radioactive-waste-faslane-clyde/. Twelve Scottish local authorities are members of Nuclear Free Local Authorities. See: https://www.nuclearpolicy.info/about/member-councils/.

[6] “Investigation into submarine defueling and dismantling” (National Audit Office, April 2019): https://www.nao.org.uk/report/investigation-into-submarine-defueling-and-dismantling/.

[7] R Edwards, “Revealed: UK’s secret plan to dump 22 nuclear submarines in Scotland” (The Ferret, 30 December 2018): https://theferret.scot/nuclear-submarines-dump-scotland/.

[8] S Parkinson, “The environmental impacts of the UK military sector” (Scientists for Global Responsibility, May 2020), pp 23–24: https://www.sgr.org.uk/publications/environmental-impacts-uk-military-sector.

[9] “Investigation into submarine defueling and dismantling” (National Audit Office, April 2019): https://www.nao.org.uk/report/investigation-into-submarine-defueling-and-dismantling/.

[10] J Vidal, “What should do with radioactive nuclear waste?” (The Guardian, 1 August 2019): https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/aug/01/what-should-we-do-with-radioactive-nuclear-waste.

[11] “Cumbria nuclear project rejected by councillors” (BBC, 30 January 2013): https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-cumbria-21253673.

[12] D Smith, “A unanimous ‘NO’ vote from Traditional Owners on SA’s proposed nuclear waste dump” (NITV News, 21 November 2019): https://www.sbs.com.au/nitv/article/2019/11/21/unanimous-no-vote-traditional-owners-sas-proposed-nuclear-waste-dump.