A huge and virtually unknown crane poses the biggest risk of a nuclear disaster at the Faslane naval base on the Clyde, according to newly released safety assessments by the Ministry of Defence (MoD).
Plutonium from up to 48 nuclear warheads could escape and cause widespread contamination and cancers if there was an accident while a Trident submarine was in the shiplift, the reports say.
But the MoD has been accused by experts and anti-nuclear campaigners of playing down the real dangers. The amounts and risks of the radioactivity that could be released have been underestimated, they say.
The shiplift at Faslane is a unique facility with a chequered history. Opened in 1993, it uses nearly 100 winches to hoist 16,000-tonne Vanguard-class submarines into the air for maintenance while they remain loaded with up to 48 Trident nuclear warheads.
The shiplift had to be modified in 1997, and in 2003 a report by consultants suggested that accident risks had been underestimated. Regarded by some as Faslane’s most hazardous operation, there have been hints that it may end up being replaced by the kind of dry dock used elsewhere.
But for now, it is still in regular use, for example lifting up the damaged HMS Vanguard after its collision with a French nuclear submarine in the Atlantic in February. And its use remains highly controversial.