Climate impact: UK Nuclear Military

By Dr Paul Dorfman Associate Fellow, Science Policy Research Unit, Sussex Energy Group, University of Sussex, UK

A Hot post-Cold War World

As the world heats, ice stored at the poles and in glaciers melts and sea levels rise. With NASA saying global sea-level rise is accelerating rather than increasing steadily, the Dutch Deltares Centre concludes that North Sea level rise is set to accelerate sharply from 2050, and the UK should be preparing for its seas, estuaries and tidal rivers to rise by up to 2 meters in the next 80 years, nearly double the UK Met Office’s worst-case predictions.

Coastal Storm Surge Flooding

And it is not just the rise in sea level that is important, it is also the increase in ‘storm surge‘ when extreme storm conditions link with strong winds and low atmospheric pressure, bringing about a temporary and local increase in sea level. Basically, the sea just ups and moves inland. As the Global Extreme Sea Level Analysis project says, the magnitude and frequency of the extreme conditions that cause storm surges and catastrophic flooding have accelerated worldwide, with coastal flooding set to increase by a factor of between 10 and more than 100 times in many European locations. Taking all this into consideration, it seems clear that coastal UK military and civil nuclear infrastructure will be at significant and ramping risk from climate impact.

Climate Threat Multiplies NATO has reported that climate change is a ‘threat multiplier’ involving sea-level rise, increased storm surge, and inland inundation. Equally, the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) says global heating is a Tier 1 Priority Risk, with MOD’s Defence Infrastructure Organisation noting a real potential to impact MOD’s ability to deliver its strategic objectives. Similarly, the UK Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre highlight a wide range of climate change threats to defense and security. More alarmingly, a recent MOD-commissioned RAND report concludes there will be a real need to defend or relocate UK military coastal infrastructure, with risk mitigation and repair costs significantly rising as vulnerability increases.

Pentagon Papers Things are no better in the US, with the Department of Defense suggesting they are unprepared for climate change, and the Pentagon admitting 79 military bases will be affected by rising sea levels and frequent flooding, including 23 nuclear installations, strategic radar stations, nuclear command centers, missile test ranges, and ballistic missile defense sites (7 of which store nuclear weapons onsite).

And this has played out in real-time when the nerve center of the U.S. nuclear deterrent was submerged by floodwater, with the recovery of the base costing over $1 billion. Unsurprisingly, the US Army War College now say climate impact means their military must consider fundamental changes in doctrine. Perhaps incredibly, the Pentagon has recently reported that the US military ‘risks collapse’ over the next two decades due to the cumulative effect of climate impact. It is even more unsettling that the senior US government officials who wrote that report come from several key agencies including the Army, Defense Intelligence Agency, and NASA.

Future-casting So, given the potential risk and decision stakes, some forward-thinking seems in order, and a couple of examples may help. Using sea-level projections closely aligned with only median IPCC sea-level projections; sets of annual flood risk maps for the year 2050 at HM Naval Base Faslane and HM Naval Base Devonport have been developed via Climate Central.

HM Naval Base Faslane

UK’s ballistic missile nuclear-armed Astute and Vanguard submarines are berthed in the Faslane Naval Base, on the eastern shore of Gare Loch in Argyll and Bute to the north of the Firth of Clyde, 25 miles northwest of Glasgow. However, the entire Clyde shoreline is at high risk of coastal flooding, with multiple analyses by the UK Climate Change Risk Assessment for Scotland, the Marine Climate Change Partnership, Scotland’s State of the Environment Report, the Strategy Development Plan for Glasgow, and the Clyde Valley all confirming real potential for significant climate-driven impacts. The result is, despite the concentration of nuclear military resources and radiological inventories at Faslane, the naval base is at ramping risk. In other words, projected significantly increased annual flooding and storm surge may bring into question the future operational viability of the UK’s key nuclear naval base.

Faslane Annual Flood Risk Map 2050

HM Naval Base Devonport Royal Dockyard

UK’s nuclear submarines are deep maintained, defueled, and refueled at the Devonport Royal Dockyard, Plymouth - the Navy’s sole nuclear repair and refueling facility. The Dockyard also houses the Low-Level Refuelling Facility for the temporary storage of high-level spent nuclear fuel before off-site long-term storage, and of new nuclear fuel prior to installation in the submarines. Clearly, Devonport’s current and future nuclear military operations involve potential risk, especially given the bases’ proximity to the local civilian population. However, this risk is set to ramp, given the high probability that the naval base will be increasingly impacted by future significant climate-driven annual flooding and storm surge flooding.

Devonport Dockyard Annual Flood Risk Map 2050

So What?

Ramping change in ice dynamics and sea-level rise will increase flooding and erosion on the UK coast, making current mitigation measures increasingly obsolete. And these risks will not be linear - there will be thresholds when natural and built barriers are exceeded as storm surge erodes nuclear infrastructure and coastal flood defenses. The implication is that UK MOD, nuclear industry, and regulatory efforts to mitigate climate risk to nuclear infrastructure will involve significantly increased expenses for nuclear construction, operation, waste management, decommissioning - and even relocation or abandonment.


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European Environment Agency (EEA) (2020): Climate Change Impacts in Europe, EEA, Feb 2020.

NATO (2017): Strategic Foresight Analysis, NATO, 2017.

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MOD (UK Ministry of Defense) (2017): Guidance: Defence Infrastructure Organisation estate and sustainable development: How the Ministry of Defence estate is adapting to climate change, including nature conservation on the estate. MOD, Jan 2017. development#adaptation-to-the-impacts-of-climate-change-on-the-ministry-of-defence-estate

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Korda M. (2020): The U.S. Nuclear Deterrent Is Not Prepared For Climate Catastrophe, Forbes, Mar 2020.

United States Army War College (2019): Implications of Climate Change for the U.S. Army, 2019. college_2019.pdf

Climate Central: Interactive Threat Maps at

MOD (UK Ministry of Defence) (2019): Information Regarding CIRAM Assessment of HM Naval Base Clyde. MOD, 2019.

National Coast Change Assessment (NCCA) (2017): National Coastal Change Assessment, Scottish Govt, 2017.


Dr Paul Dorfman is Honorary Senior Research Associate, UCL Energy Institute, University College London; Founder and Chair of the Nuclear Consulting Group; Member of the Irish Government Environment Protection Agency Radiation Protection Advisory Committee; Member of the International Nuclear Risk Assessment Group; Greenpeace Environmental Trust Nuclear Policy Researcher.

He served as Secretary to the UK Government scientific advisory Committee Examining Radiation Risks from Internal Emitters; led the European Environment Agency response to Fukushima; served as Advisor to the UK Ministry of Defence Nuclear Submarine Dismantling Project; Advisor to the French Government on Technical and Economic Aspects of Decommissioning the French Nuclear Reactor Fleet; and Expert to the European Economic and Social Committee European Energy Dialogue