The Daily Mail recently ran an ‘exclusive’ to the effect that, as a result of the seemingly inexorable rise of the anti-nuclear SNP and the unexpected closeness of the recent Scottish independence referendum, politicians and civil servants in Whitehall were secretly drawing up contingency plans to move Britain’s nuclear submarine base and Trident boats from Faslane in Scotland to Milford Haven. While the level of accuracy of this report may, perhaps, be gauged by the fact that the story’s photo of ‘HMS Vanguard at the Faslane base’ is actually of her being launched at Barrow-in-Furness over twenty years ago, it nevertheless reflects one of the obvious truths of the changed political situation in Scotland: namely, that if an anti-Trident Scottish government ever demanded the withdrawal of the system, a pro-nuclear government in London would have to find somewhere else to put it. The suggestion that the base might come to Milford Haven is far-fetched for several reasons – not least the mind-boggling ‘risk assessment’ that would be required to justify placing several nuclear reactors and dozens of nuclear warheads immediately adjacent to a LNG facility and one or two oil refineries – but it is not entirely beyond the bounds of possibility, if only because Milford has been seriously considered for this exact role before. As I wrote in Britannia’s Dragon,
It was one of the sites considered in 1963-4, before the decision was taken to base the submarine deterrent force at Faslane. Indeed, a number of Welsh harbours – Carmarthen Bay, Tremadog Bay, Fishguard and Holyhead – made the original ‘long list’ of potential Polaris bases, but all were rejected at a very early stage because of unsuitable geography. Milford Haven made a ‘long short list’ of ten, with plans drawn up for a submarine base at Newton Noyes and a weapons facility at Angle, but it was excluded from the final short list of six on safety grounds due to the proximity of the then new oil refineries.
Polaris submarine HMS Repulse in Loch Goil, 1988
Detailed information on the Milford scheme can be found in ADM1/28965, a file at the National Archives in Kew. This contains a detailed analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of all the candidates, with detail on navigational issues, potential safety problems, and so forth. The study of Milford proposed that the base should be at Newton Noyes, where the Admiralty already had a Royal Naval Armament Depot producing most of the navy’s stock of mines. The storage facility for the Polaris intercontinental ballistic missiles was to be built on the south side of the Haven, ‘three cables east of Thorn Point’. The report noted that there were likely to be some difficulties with submarines manoeuvring at their berths – a problem that would presumably be exacerbated in the case of today’s much larger Trident submarines and their likely successors – and potential interference from merchant shipping, namely the large tankers that were already using the Haven. As far as weapon safety was concerned, this was described as
Marginal/fair. The small village of Angle would lie within the area of major damage, in the event of [a] maximum credible explosives accident. Fire risk from large numbers of tankers present needs recognition.
The former RN armament depot at Newton Noyes – proposed site of the submarine base
More prosaically, it was noted that shore side attractions were ‘limited’, and that the site possessed neither canteen nor playing fields, which would need to be built from scratch. Requirements to establish the base included extended the existing pier at Newton Noyes by 100 yards and building a 200 yard pier at Angle for the new RNAD. It was noted that ‘opposition to acquisition or development from local and particularly industrial interests [was] likely to be strong’. It was estimated that it would cost £2 million to build the necessary new dock facilities, the same as at the other proposed sites; running costs were estimated at about £198,000 a year, roughly double those for Faslane but nearly identical to those at all the other proposed sites.
Ultimately, Milford Haven was eliminated from the final shortlist of six – which contained Devonport, Falmouth, Rosyth, Invergordon, Loch Alsh, and the eventual ‘winner’, Faslane – entirely on safety grounds. As the Admiralty study put it,
Development of the Haven as a major oil port is far advanced and increasing. In deference to industrial interests, the Admiralty has agreed to reduce the handling and storage of mass-risk explosives in the area. The functions of the existing RNAD at Newton Noyes are being reduced accordingly. We see no other advantages at this site which would justify an attempt to reverse this policy…the safety distances which will be available when the Regent Refinery is built would be quite unsuitable. On political grounds also it is presumed to be inadvisable to put Polaris into this developing oil port.
With the potential dangers of basing nuclear-armed submarines at Milford Haven now being significantly greater than they were fifty years ago, it might be interesting to witness the amount of political ‘spin’ and legerdemain that would be required to justify making such a move today, and to dismiss the entirely convincing arguments that were put forward when the matter was first aired. But these are strange and uncertain political times: and as a certain fictional Commander RN once said, ‘Never say never’!