UNIONS have called for more North Sea oil and gas platforms to be evacuated amid fears of a catastrophic explosion following a gas leak 150 miles off Aberdeen.

The Elgin platform: a search for solutions

It came after Shell removed 120 staff from the Shearwater platform as a result of the incident at Total's Elgin platform, which prompted a three-mile air and two-mile sea exclusion zone near the area.

Total E&P UK, which operates the platform, said it could take six months to drill a relief well to stop the leak.

Willie Wallace, Unite union regional officer for 15,000 offshore workers, said the seriousness of the incident was clear, and there was the continuing issue of the danger posed by drifting gas.

He said: "While we welcome the speedy evacuation of the Elgin [platform] and the fact that two further installations in the immediate vicinity have been down-manned of all non-essential staff, we are concerned that only partial evacuation has taken place on the other installations in the area so far."

Jake Molloy, of the RMT union, congratulated Total on Sunday's evacuation of 238 personnel from the platform in the Elgin-Franklin oil and gas field. He said: "The gas was coming right up the outer casing [of the pipe carrying the gas/oil] right below the wellhead on to the Elgin wellhead platform.

"If you have a free-flowing gas well and it finds an ignition source, then the platform is going to be destroyed.

"Total, again to their credit, have done everything they can to power down and ensure there is no ignition source.

"It is when it breaks up and you get that gas-air mixture that it can happen. So the potential remains for catastrophic devastation."

The industry is waiting anxiously to see if the gas leak, which is visible from the air, can be controlled before predictions of the platform's destruction are tested.

Up to 10% of the UK's gas is produced by Elgin-Franklin.

Such a serious high-pressure release of gas has never been encountered in the global offshore sector and Shell brought forward plans to carry out maintenance at Shearwater, with production to be shut down in a "controlled manner".

David Hainsworth, health, safety and environment manager for Total E&P UK, said: "I would say the best-case scenario is that the gas is not very productive from this area and that it dies off over the coming days and weeks."

Environment Secretary Richard Lochhead said: "As the situation currently stands, impact on the environment – which is the Scottish Government's area of responsibility– is minimal.

"While health and safety responsibility in the off-shore industry is currently reserved to Westminster, Scottish ministers are being kept fully informed of developments."

Mr Lochhead, who has been liaising with Total UK and the UK Energy Minister Charles Hendry, highlighted the importance of openness and transparency about the incident.

His position was echoed by Green MSP Alison Johnstone, who said: "Sadly, the oil and gas industry has a terrible track record when it comes to being transparent."

The Elgin platform: a search for solutions