British Navy unloading weapons from nuclear submarine in Gibraltar

Spanish foreign ministry renews demand for explanations regarding the extent of the damage

Technicians removing a missile from HMS Ambush in the port of Gibraltar.
Technicians removing a missile from HMS Ambush in the port of Gibraltar.Marcos Moreno (EL PAÍS)

A British nuclear-powered submarine that sustained damage after colliding with a merchant vessel off Gibraltar a week ago is being stripped of its weapons.

HMS Ambush will leave the British overseas territory “as soon as the ongoing work is completed,” said a spokesman for the Royal Navy, without specifying a date or the nature of the operation.

But on Wednesday, a jib crane could be seen removing the Tomahawk cruise missiles, the Spearfish torpedoes and the Harpoon anti-ship missiles from the attack vessel, which returned to Gibraltar for examination after the collision on July 20.

No more Tireless

The shadow of HMS Tireless looms over HMS Ambush. In May 2001, when Tireless left the port of Gibraltar after being berthed there for 11 months, the Spanish foreign minister at the time, Josep Piqué, said he had asked his counterpart Robin Cook to make sure that no more nuclear submarines would ever undergo repairs there. Cook expressed a “clear determination” to ensure that it would be so. To that effect, Britain announced the “immediate” dismantling of the facilities that had served to repair a crack in the ship reactor’s primary refrigeration circuit.

The Gibraltar Port Authority established a 200-meter maritime exclusion zone around HMS Ambush between 8am and 5pm in order to unload the “hazardous material.” The port’s south entrance was closed off to civilian ships.

The area had been cordoned off with buoys on Monday, but it wasn’t until Wednesday that technicians from BAE Systems Maritime began supervising the unloading operation. The manufacturing company is headquartered in Barrow-in Furnes, where the submarine was built under the supervision of the British Defense Ministry.

The Royal Navy spokesman said that the vessel sustained external damage, the extent of which is being investigated. “Comprehensive checks of HMS Ambush have shown that her reactor remains completely safe and there hasn’t been any increase in radiation as a result of this incident,” said the spokesman.

Diplomatic sources told EL PAÍS that according to information provided by Britain, the nuclear reactor was not affected, but some of its navigation equipment may have been. If so, this will require repairs before HMS Ambush can return to its base in Faslane (Scotland).

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Photographs of the submarine show significant damage to its fin – the tower-like structure that sits on its dorsal area – although this part of the vessel has since been covered up with scaffolding.

A spokesman for the Spanish Foreign Ministry told EL PAÍS that Spain has reiterated its demand for explanations regarding the extent of the damage and the nature of the work being carried out.

This source said that Britain has not provided any official information on this matter.

Meanwhile, the Spanish government’s delegate in Andalusia, Antonio Sanz, underscored that British authorities are “guaranteeing” there is no risk to local residents over the accident. Investigations by the Nuclear Safety Council, the Spanish Navy and environmental groups such as Verdemar all agree that there has been no increase in radiation levels in the area.

Antonio Muñoz, spokesman for Verdemar in the area, noted that Gibraltar’s port is classified as Z, meaning that nuclear submarines can only make rest stops there, but not come in for repairs – an option reserved for class X ports.

English version by Susana Urra.

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