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MoD plans 2 billion nuclear expansion


18 June 2002

Defence chiefs are drawing up plans for a "first strike" strategy using nuclear weapons.The Ministry of Defence is investing more than 2 billion in a project that would enable Britain to produce a new generation of nuclear weapons, officials admitted yesterday.

A huge expansion plan for the atomic weapons establishment in Aldermaston, Berkshire, would provide scientists with the capability to design and produce 'mini-nukes' or nuclear warheads for cruise missiles, a spokesman for the plant told the Guardian.

Martin Salter, Labour MP for Reading West, tabled a series of questions yesterday about MoD plans for Aldermaston. "My concerns centre on the fact that it is quite clear a massive increase in capacity is planned for Aldermaston, a plant with a chequered history of criminal prosecutions..." he said, complaining that there had been no chance for local people or the Commons to debate the consequences of the expansion.

Lewis Moonie, the junior defence minister, denied Aldermaston was being expanded in order to develop small nuclear weapons which could be used against terrorist groups and "rogue states". He told MPs: "Work going on in Aldermaston is no secret and is in order to maintain the reliability of our nuclear deterrent faced with the fact that we no longer test these weapons."

The work would ensure "our nuclear deterrent is reliable and capable of being deployed. That involves a great deal of careful work to ensure there is no chance of us going back to physically testing the weapons", Dr Moonie said.

Defence officials pointed to the 1998 strategic defence review which says Britain needed the capability to produce a successor to the Trident nuclear missile system.

However, though an Aldermaston spokesman said yesterday that there were currently no plans to design a Trident successor or any new nuclear weapons, he admitted the plant could produce 'mini-nukes' or nuclear warheads for cruise missiles if the government gave the go-ahead.

The Aldermaston plan coincides with an apparent agreement to a radical shift in Britain's nuclear doctrine. The defence secretary, Geoff Hoon, has suggested the government would now be prepared to fire a nuclear weapon in a pre-emptive strike against non-nuclear states suspected of developing chemical and biological weapons. A senior defence official admitted Mr Hoon had "gone further than people have before".

Steve Pullinger, director of the International Security Information Service, told the Guardian: "The doctrine apparently allows for the pre-emptive use of nuclear weapons to prevent what we perceive to be a threat from chemical and biological weapons."

Richard Norton-Taylor
Published in the Guardian © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002

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