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Spain seeks ‘urgent explanations’ over submarine collision

The Spanish Government sought “urgent explanations” from Britain yesterday after a Royal Navy submarine was forced to dock in Gibraltar late Wednesday following a collision with a merchant vessel.

In a statement, Ministry for Foreign Affairs in Madrid said it was seeking information from the British embassy regarding the damage sustained by HMS Ambush and details of how the incident occurred.

Later acting Foreign Minister José Manuel García-Margallo told reporters: “The Spanish Government has done what it has to do, which is to immediately call the UK’s diplomatic representatives, and we will take whatever measures are necessary once we know what has happened.”

Even before those statements were made, the British Government had already given public assurances that the damage to the submarine was external and that there were no safety concerns.

Yesterday UK Armed Forces Minister Mike Penning telephoned Chief Minister Fabian Picardo to reinforce those assurances and update him on the latest developments following the collision.

“Mike Penning is a good, long term friend of Gibraltar and I am very happy to see him appointed to the role of Minister for the Armed Forces,” Mr Picardo said.

“I have spoken to him today to receive his assurances that the vessel’s reactor is undamaged and that there is therefore no danger to Gibraltar from its presence at the South Mole.”

“I am satisfied of his assurances and his explanations of the incident.”

Initial reports late Wednesday suggested the collision had taken place just inside the three-mile limit of British Gibraltar territorial waters.

But a spokesman for the Ministry of Defence told the Chronicle yesterday it in fact happened in international waters, some 3.3 nautical miles off the Rock.

There was no confirmation as to the identity of the merchant vessel, although the Chronicle understands it was a Panamanian chemical tanker that was under way at the time.

The vessel did not appear to sustain any damage in the collision.

It conducted an ‘off port limits’ operation south of Gibraltar following the incident and proceeded on its voyage to Rotterdam.

The submarine was involved in the accident despite being equipped with what the Royal Navy boasts are “world-leading sensors”. It was not clear whether both vessels were moving at the time or if the submarine was stationary.

Late on Wednesday the MoD said HMS Ambush had been involved in “a glancing collision” while submerged on a training exercise “off the coast of Gibraltar”.

It added that it was in contact with the crew on the merchant vessel and that initial indications were that the ship had not sustained any damage.

The Royal Navy also stressed that there was no damage to the submarine’s nuclear plant, or injuries to its crew.

Yesterday, as navy investigators continued to piece together events leading up to the collision, HMS Ambush was berthed on the Z Berth in the South Mole with a protective boom extended around it.

The front of the conning tower was crushed in the impact and had been covered with a heavy tarpaulin to keep it away from the gaze of camera crews and photographers who flocked to the Rock to film the crippled submarine.

HMS Ambush collision

A scaffold had also been erected around the tower and there was tarpaulin covering part of the superstructure near the bow too.

The arrival of the stricken submarine in Gibraltar brought back memories of HMS Tireless and inevitably raised concern among environmental groups.

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In Spain, Verdemar-Ecologistas en Acción called for Spain’s nuclear safety watchdog, the Consejo de Seguridad Nacional, to conduct “immediate” analysis of radioactivity in the bay.

The group’s spokesman, Antonio Muñóz, was sharply critical of UK authorities.

“What sort of safety measures do they have in place?” he asked.

In Gibraltar, the Environmental Safety Group also reacted to the collision and the submarine’s arrival here.

“The ESG is concerned about the latest incident involving HMS Ambush and a commercial vessel and calls for more information to be released regarding how such an incident could have occurred,” the group said in a statement.
“While damage is said to be confined to external area, any information that may have public safety issues must be made public.”

Juan Pecino, a former MoD convenor for Unite the Union, questioned the continued use of the naval base by nuclear-powered submarines and called on the Gibraltar Government to state whether it was satisfied that this was safe for the community.

The government, which had been updated in the wake of the incident by the Commander British Forces, Commodore Mike Walliker, made clear that submarines were welcome.

Mr Picardo said he had reiterated to Mr Penning, the Armed Forces minister, that Gibraltar had “proudly served” as a port of call to provide shelter to the Royal Navy for centuries “…and this latest visit is no different.”

“HMS Ambush is therefore as welcome today on the Rock as ever,” Mr Picardo said.

“In more modern times, Gibraltar has often played host to nuclear submarines, something which the Government welcomes as it helps to demonstrate the strategic importance of the United Kingdom and to the Royal Navy in particular.”

Mr Picardo was speaking from the Turks and Caicos, where he is attending an Overseas Territories heads of government meeting. Commodore Walliker had liaised with him and deputy Chief Minister Dr Joseph Garcia after the collision.

Commodore Walliker, who took over as CBF just last week, is no stranger to Gibraltar and submarine-related controversy, having commanded HMS Tireless when it suffered problems in 2000.

HMS Tireless docked in Gibraltar for repairs for nearly a year after a crack was found in a cooling pipe near its nuclear reactor, sparking fears that it could leak and contaminate the environment.

People in Gibraltar and in southern Spain staged regular protests against the HMS Tireless and it was the subject of a high-profile direct action campaign by the environmental organisation Greenpeace.

Spain's prime minister at the time, Jose Maria Aznar, was criticised at home for not insisting that the submarine be moved back to Britain for repair.

On Wednesday the MoD sought to underscore that the incident involving HMS Ambush was very different, insisting that “this is not a similar situation to HMS Tireless”.

It was not clear however whether HMS Ambush would be repaired here or sent back to the UK.

HMS Ambush is one of the UK’s most modern submarines and has visited Gibraltar several times over the past year.

The Astute-class vessels, which are based at Britain's Clyde naval base in Scotland, are Britain's largest and most powerful attack submarines.

The 7,400-tonne submarines cost more than £1 billion each and carry torpedoes for targeting enemy submarines and ships, as well as Tomahawk cruise missiles.

The collision occurred just two days after British MPs backed renewing the Trident nuclear weapons system, including the replacement of the existing submarine fleet carrying the missiles with four new Successor submarines.

Opponents in some of Britain's political parties and in the wider public have cited safety concerns as one of the reasons for not backing Trident’s renewal.

Main pic by Johnny Bugeja.

Body pics by David Parody