The poll result will reinforce calls by rebel Labour MPs and bodies such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament for a public debate on replacing the ageing nuclear weapons system - which the Government is committed to deciding on in this Parliament.
It will also bring increased pressure on Tony Blair to open the issue for discussion inside and outside Parliament. They believe the Government would have severe difficulties commissioning a replacement in the face of widespread public opposition.
According to the poll for the environmental pressure group Greenpeace, which has been disclosed exclusively to The Independent, the public are, at the very least, completely split over the replacement issue.
When asked the relatively neutral question: "Do you think the Government should replace its nuclear weapons or not?" a narrow majority of 46 per cent agree that it should not, while 44 per cent believe it should. And 10 per cent don't know.
However, the result is radically different when interviewees are told that the cost of a replacement is likely to be around £25bn or the equivalent of building about 1,000 schools. Then, the number of people supporting replacement drops to one in three - 33 per cent - while those opposing replacement rises to 54 per cent.
Paul Flynn, the Labour MP for Newport West, who is leading the campaign for a vote in the House of Commons, welcomed the results: "This is extremely encouraging news that explains the vital need for a debate on such a vitally important issue which must not be decided in secret.
"It suggests that if people are aware of the issues, they will agree that to have a nuclear deterrent now - where these Trident submarines wander the oceans with missiles aimed at nothing - is a meaningless proposition."
Kate Hudson, the chair of CND, said: "Not only is there a strong demand for a full national debate on this question but also the option of not replacing Trident must be on the table."
The Greenpeace poll shows an overwhelming majority - nine out of 10 respondents - desire a greater public debate on the Trident question.
When asked whether they approved of the Government using nuclear weapons against a country we were at war with but had not deployed its nuclear force, 72 per cent of respondents disapproved, a clear rejection of the "first-strike" principle to which the Government is wed. The figure rises to 84 per cent in relation to countries which do not have nuclear weapons. Only in the case of a country which has used nuclear weapons against Britain does a slim majority - 53 per cent - approve, with a significant 37 per cent still disapproving.
The figures opposing first-use are substantially higher than a similarly worded poll taken in 1955, when the Cold War was strengthening, while the majority in favour of retaliation has dropped from 76 per cent. Other polls in previous decades have shown declining majorities in favour of a first strike against Russia, then the principal nuclear threat. A 1987 poll showed only 20 per cent of people favoured deploying nuclear weapons if Russia invaded Western Europe.
While Tony Blair and John Reid, the Defence Secretary have indicated that they wish to listen to the views of MPs and the public, they have not committed themselves to giving MPs a vote. If the Government continues to reject the idea, Mr Flynn and colleagues are trying to force a vote among Labour MP's themselves next Monday.Reuse content