Spain Wants Stricken Nuclear Sub Returned to UK

MADRID, Spain, December 7, 2000 (ENS) - Spain has publicly stated it wants a stricken nuclear submarine removed from Gibraltar, where it has languished for six months awaiting repairs.

The HMS Tireless has been docked in the deep water port at the base of the Rock of Gibraltar since May when a fault was discovered in its reactor cooler system. The reactor has since been shut down.


Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar. (Photo courtesy Government of Spain)
Some in Gibraltar are worried that repairs to the nuclear sub might release nuclear radiation that would contaminate the famous rock that forms the northern half of the gateway from the Atlantic Ocean into the Mediterranean Sea.

Once a strategic military base during the Cold War, Gibraltar, a self governing United Kingdom dependency situated at the southern tip of Spain, is a convenient stop for UK submarines.

But the Tireless has clearly outstayed its welcome as protests and petitions calling for it to be towed back to the UK gain momentum.

In an interview with the UK's Times newspaper Wednesday, Spanish Prime Minister, José María Aznar said the damaged vessel should be removed from Gibraltar and repaired at a mainland UK port.

"The most reasonable, logical and desirable thing would be for it to be taken to the United Kingdom," said Aznar. It is the first time Spain's leadership has publicly called for the vessel's removal.

Today, a Ministry of Defence spokesman said Aznar has not formally requested the removal of the nuclear submarine from Gibraltar.

The spokesman agreed that the removal of Tireless was "logical and desirable," but not realistic. He said the Spanish premier's views coincided with Ministry of Defence opinion, since this "would mean that we can have the submarine operational again."

Towing Tireless back to the UK would mean negotiating 1,600 kilometers (994 miles) of often stormy winter seas. Much of the journey includes the Portuguese coastline.

Portugal has publicly stated it does not approve of such a plan, which means that Tireless would have difficulty finding a berth in the event of problems during the voyage.


HMS Tireless' presence in Gibraltar has sparked several protests. (Photo Iberia News)
Ministry of Defence officials have told online news service Iberia News that such a trip could be made by March when the risk of storms subsides. March is the Ministry of Defence deadline for repairs to be completed.

In the meantime, media reports about the threat of contamination fuel concerns among the people of Gibraltar and southern Spain. The Royal Navy reacted angrily to a Sunday Times report last month, headlined "Nuclear sub came close to meltdown."

"The submarine did not come within minutes of a meltdown and anyone with knowledge of nuclear physics would know that it is impossible for an accident in a Pressurised Water Reactor to result in a nuclear explosion," wrote Rear Admiral Bob Stevens in a letter to the paper.

"The coolant leak was promptly and efficiently dealt with by a very competent and well trained crew. Our absolute insistence on safety is also borne out by my prompt recall of the submarine force for checks the moment the problem was known."

In the most recent update filed last month to Gibraltar's Nuclear Safety Advisory Panel, the Ministry of Defence admits it has not established the cause of the defect, which has delayed repairs.

It has removed radioactive waste from Tireless, including 13 square meters of primary circuit coolant water, and smaller quantities of very low level and low level radio active waste in the form of solids, trash and insulation. The waste remains in temporary storage on the quayside.

Published in cooperation with Iberia News: