The UK Atomic Weapons Establishment, which makes and maintains the warheads for Britain’s nuclear missiles, has come under the control of US companies after the government sold its one-third stake.
Ministers were accused Thursday night of trying to conceal the change in ownership after failing to make an announcement to parliament.
The sale of the Aldermaston facility to Jacobs is likely to reignite controversy over the independence of the UK’s deterrent.
The US already supplies the technology for the weapons but it was the recognition that the UK needed an independent nuclear deterrent after the second world war which prompted the government to develop the facility.
However, there was no announcement from the government, which was accused of turning the matter into “a farce”.
BNFL only put up a short statement on its website Thursday afternoon confirming the sale. The Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform had no official comment.
Gerald Howarth, shadow defence minister, described the decision not to announce the sale to parliament as “unacceptable”.
“It is consistent with the government’s unwillingness to share matters nuclear with parliament.
“It is not an issue about which we can be cavalier. We need to know what the implications are of this.”
Nick Harvey, Liberal Democrat defence spokesman, said: “The government appears guilty of concealing all this from parliament and the public. There has been a huge degree of suspicion over what has been going on at Aldermaston, particularly over recruitment and how this fits with our obligations under the non-proliferation treaty.
“None of this has been properly explained. Why are we bothering with the fiction of being independent and separate from the US when this is clearly not the case? It sounds to me like this is turning into a farce.”
Jacobs had been competing against another US engineer, Fluor Corporation, for the stake since January. The US company did not disclose the purchase price but estimates in January valued it at £100m ($150m).
Bob King, officer of the Prospect union for AWE, said Jacobs was well-known to staff and he hoped the company would provide some financial stability.
But politically he admitted it was “a sad day” that Britain’s nuclear deterrent was now majority US controlled.