The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament reacted with outrage to the news that the Government is selling its remaining one-third share in the company that runs the Atomic Weapons Establishment to Jaccobs Engineering, a US company. This will give American corporations a controlling 2/3rds share of the organisation that builds and maintains Britain’s so-called ‘independent’ nuclear weapons system.

The news, released to the US business press and not announced in Parliament means AWE Management Limited (AWE ML) will be owned by US arms company Lockheed Martin and British services group Serco, with Jacobs Engineering Group buying the third share previously under Government control via BNFL (British Nuclear Fuels Ltd), former operators of Sellafield.

The sale raises serious questions about the claimed independence of Britain’s nuclear weapons programme from the US. Governments have for decades justified the vast expense of maintaining their own nuclear labs at Aldermaston near Reading – and the associated nuclear submarine programme – on the basis of the freedom of political action that it affords the UK. With AWE ML under majority-US control and with those companies massively tied-in to the US nuclear weapons labs, the reliance on the US for information and expertise is only going to grow.

AWE is currently undergoing the biggest investment programme in recent decades with operators boasting it to be ‘on the scale of Heathrow Terminal 5’. Spending on capital programmes, over and above routine running-costs has mushroomed from £24m in 2000 to £420m last year . AWE has repeatedly come under fire for safety lapses. Fears over the collapse of ‘gravel gerties’ – structures where warheads are dismantled under gravel meant to contain any explosion – led to all live nuclear work being suspended for nine months. Recently, an internal report released under the Freedom of Information Act revealed that flooding in summer 2007 inundated dozens of buildings at AWE’s Burghfield site disabling radiation safety alarms for 10 days after the floods.

Aldermaston has been the scene of frequent protest ever since the first iconic march from London to Aldermaston 50 years ago at Easter 1958. To mark that anniversary and to protest over the fact that half a century on, Britain is still building city-destroying bombs for the Trident programme, each eight times the power of the Hiroshima bomb, CND brought 5,000 protesters to surround Aldermaston in a human chain. CND and other groups regularly organise non-violent blockades of the gates to AWE, disrupting construction work at the site.

Kate Hudson, Chair of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, said “It is outrageous that control of Britain’s so-called ‘independent’ nuclear weapons are being handed over to American corporations. Not only does this increase the slice of the £76bn to be spent replacing Trident that will go to the US, it more significantly gives the US Government even more strings to pull to control British foreign policy.”

She continued, “It is shocking that this announcement is sneaked out in the US, the week before Christmas, when Parliament is about to go in to recess. This is a major long-term decision – why has there been no announcement in the Commons where MPs could scrutinise the major defence and foreign policy implications of putting British nuclear bombs in the hands of US companies? It is vital that this is redressed immediately.”