The risk associated with breaking up a fleet of ex-US navy 'ghost ships' is in the market and being examined by underwriters, Insurance Times can reveal.

Industry sources expect the risk to be placed with environmental liability leaders such as AIG, Chubb or XL.

The controversial plan to scrap the fleet of polluted and ageing former supply ships has attracted condemnation by environmental campaigners and politicians.

Protesters fear marine pollution and damage to wildlife sites near the Hartle-pool base of Able UK, the British firm that has been contracted to dismantle the rusting hulks.

The ships are contaminated with asbestos, PCBs and fuel oil. The work of breaking up the ships is expected to create up to 200 jobs.

EU environment commissioner Margot Wallstrom this week reportedly added her voice to the chorus of protest. She told journalists the ships should be broken up in the US. She was quoted as saying Europe should send experts to the US to help do the dismantling there.

"We are looking at the legal aspects. I think it doesn't make sense at all. They should be kept in the US.

"There is too much of an environmental risk. I will write to the US Government and bring the subject up with Margaret Beckett."

However, one industry expert argued Britain had the expertise to dismantle the ships safely.

Two of the fleet of 13 ships have left their former resting place in the James River, Virginia, and are being towed to Hartlepool.

Risks associated with the ships' passage was underwritten by tug specialist Beazley.