A memorandum by the Ministry of Defence revealed the expansion to the Commons Select Committee on Defence, which took evidence yesterday from experts on the replacement of Trident. The AWE at Aldermaston, Berkshire, is also planning to build a laser on the site - codenamed Project Orion - to replicate the physical conditions of a nuclear reaction. That will enable a nuclear device to be tested without breaking the nuclear test ban treaty.
John Reid, the Defence Secretary, has repeatedly denied that any decision has been taken by the Government about a new generation of nuclear weapons.
However, the memorandum obtained by The Independent has raised renewed suspicions that a decision has been taken in principle by the Government to replace Trident - a ballistic system of missiles with multiple warheads housed on four submarines. The Trident system has another 20 years to run but was designed for the Cold War.
Options include smaller nuclear warheads on Cruise missiles which could be launched from jets. But these would be vulnerable to pre-emptive attack. Britain has to build its own warheads in spite of exchanges with the US to avoid breaking the non-proliferation treaty.
The document, code-numbered SND O2, revealed AWE was hiring 350 extra staff each year over the three years to 2007-08 "to ensure the core skills within AWE are sustained".
The MoD document said: "This additional investment at AWE is required to sustain the existing warhead stockpile in-service irrespective of decisions on any successor warhead."
The extra staff are needed to replace the ageing workforce who were hired for the Polaris modernisation programme in the 1970s, but it will lead to an increase in the total workforce, the document added.
MPs believe the Government's investment is laying the ground for scientists to build a bomb for Britain's nuclear deterrent force.
Michael Hancock, a Liberal Democrat member of the committee, said: "This is all geared up to taking us into the next phase [of the deterrent]. The Government have a good idea where they are going. Blair knows that, at the moment, he could not get this through his own party."
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