Fresh evidence that work on testing a nuclear warhead is being planned at the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston has been uncovered by anti-nuclear campaigners.
The disclosure could leave the Prime Minister open to allegations of deceiving Parliament. Tony Blair promised MPs that they will have a parliamentary debate before the Government gives the go-ahead for a replacement for Britain's Trident nuclear weapon system.
The Cabinet is to discuss replacing the controversial weapon system at the end of the year. The Prime Minister has denied that a decision in principle was taken before the election.
But campaigners at Greenpeace said they had identified the recruitment of 25 extra scientists at Aldermaston for work on a new warhead. They are being recruited as part of a massive expansion at Aldermaston, costing £350m a year over the next three years to build powerful lasers capable of testing nuclear technology in the laboratory. AWE chiefs described it as the biggest construction site in England, and have compared it with the fifth terminal at Heathrow.
From July 2005 - immediately after the last general election - to March this year, Aldermaston recruited 90 scientists, 250 engineers, 57 technical support staff and 98 business services staff. It now plans to recruit a further 700 staff by the end of March, 2008.
The Government has repeatedly insisted the extra staff were being hired to maintain the safety of the existing Trident system, after reports in The Independent that Downing Street had agreed in principle to upgrade the weapon. But Greenpeace has a dossier directly challenging the assurances by the former defence secretary John Reid and other ministers.
Greenpeace said the most significant finding was that Aldermaston is recruiting an extra 25 scientists with expertise in hydrodynamics testing which allows nuclear weapons laboratories to gather test data previously available only from underground nuclear tests, such as the one 11 days ago by North Korea. They will bring the total number of scientists in this field to 90.
"The only real use for hydrodynamic expertise, according to Greg Mello, the director of the Los Alamos [nuclear plant in the US] Study Group, is for designing a new weapon," said Greenpeace.
"We are also seeing the increased co-operation between the UK and the US that might be expected if a nuclear weapon programme was under way."
This included a doubling in the number of meetings between Aldermaston scientists and their US counterparts. The MoD has also appointed a senior US nuclear weapons scientist, Don Cook, to manage Aldermaston.
Greenpeace said the AWE admitted in 2002 that the capability to build a successor to Trident would have to be achieved "without conducting nuclear tests", underlining the need for the specialist scientists.
The dossier also claims that Cherie Blair's legal chambers, Matrix, has advised another anti-nuclear group, Peacerights, that the replacement of Trident "is likely to constitute a breach" of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) which Britain has signed.
"The UK investment programme at Aldermaston is turning the comprehensive test ban treaty into a hollow shell that allows those states with advanced technology to develop new nuclear weapons without nuclear testing," said the report.
The dossier said the NPT would collapse and there would be no legal restraints on other states such as Iran and North Korea gaining nuclear weapons if those who had signed it were seen to be breaking it.
It warned that "a state, sooner or later, will actually use a nuclear weapon".Reuse content