HC Deb 07 June 1956 vol 553 cc1283-6
The Prime Minister

With your permission, Sir, and that of the House, I will make a statement.

In the Statement on Defence, 1955, Her Majesty's Government announced their intention to manufacture thermo-nuclear weapons. As I have previously stated. the holding of tests is an essential part of the process of providing ourselves with such weapons. The United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics have already held such tests and Her Majesty's Government have decided to carry out a limited number of nuclear test explosions in the megaton range.

These will take place during the first half of 1957 in a remote part of the Pacific Ocean. The explosions will take place far from any inhabited islands and the tests will be so arranged as to avoid danger to persons or property. The tests will be high air bursts which will not involve heavy fall-out. All safety precautions will be taken in the light of our knowledge and of experience gained from the tests of other countries. The main base of the aircraft of the Royal Air Force taking part will be Christmas Island, in the Pacific Ocean, and meteorological facilities will be installed there. Her Majesty's Governments in Australia and New Zealand have agreed to make available to the task force various forms of aid and ancillary support from Australian and New Zealand territory. We are most grateful for this.

In reaching this decision Her Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom have given full weight to the anxiety which exists about the indefinite continuance of tests of nuclear weapons without control and without limitation. I emphasised on 6th December last year in the House that Her Majesty's Government were prepared to discuss methods of regulating and limiting test explosions which take account of their position and that of other Powers. This remains the policy of Her Majesty's Government and we shall seek every opportunity to put it into effect.

Mr. A. Henderson

The Prime Minister's statement referred to what he said on 6th December, when he expressed his willingness to enter into discussions on the question of control and limitation. Surely that is totally inadequate. Is the Prime Minister not prepared to take the initiative in making concrete proposals to the Governments of Russia and of the United States with a view to securing the control and limitation to which he has referred?

The Prime Minister suggested that when the explosions take place next spring, there will be little heavy fall-out. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, many people are concerned as a result of the statements that have been made about the presence of a radioactive fall-out substance known as strontium, which, apparently, has most deleterious effects upon the human system. Can he say whether there are any fears on the part of the Government about that possibility?

The Prime Minister

As to the first part of the right hon. and learned Member's question, action has already been taken. We and the French tabled our disarmament proposals in this connection in March and they will, no doubt, be considered with other proposals when the Disarmament Commission meets, which I think it will do in a few weeks' time, in New York. That seems to me to be the best place to discuss this business.

As regards the precautions, the right hon. and learned Gentleman can be sure that in taking our decision we have taken account of all the considerations he has mentioned. The Medical Research Council's Report, of which the House is aware, will, I hope, be available to the House and made public in the course of next week, and I suggest that the House should examine it. I would certainly deprecate any alarmist conclusions, because I am sure they would be wrong, before that Report has been read.

Mr. Wade

Will the Prime Minister clarify one point in his statement? As he is aware, the general public are worried about the consequences of these tests and those who are not experts find it difficult to understand the technical aspects. I understood the Prime Minister to say that these high air bursts would not involve heavy fall-out. To remove misunderstanding, will the Prime Minister explain the relationship between the height of the bursts and the absence of heavy fall-out? Is it not generally true that the higher the burst, the more widespread the fall-out?

The Prime Minister

I share with the hon. Gentleman absence of technical, scientific knowledge, but I would say that we have tried to use the experience of others in this matter, and this higher burst does result in less heavy fall-out and, therefore, less danger to anybody concerned. As to the general effect of these tests on health in the world in general, as I say, this Report is shortly coming out. It is a very thorough, well documented publication, and I would ask the House to study it before coming to any conclusion.

Mr. Beswick

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman two or three questions? First, whether he did not have a little twinge of conscience when he announced that the air base of this operation would be Christmas Island? Secondly, he says that the explosion will be far away from any inhabited island, but is he aware that men have been injured and, indeed, killed far away from air bursts? Can he say how far away is the nearest inhabited island? Thirdly, will he state quite definitely whether we, as a nation, are for the abolition of tests before or after this series, or not? Are we disposed to agree with others for the suspension of all further tests or not?

The Prime Minister

On the matter of our conscience, I would say without hesitation that what has been the most powerful deterrent in preventing a dangerous drift towards war has been the knowledge in the minds of all nations of what the consequences would be. Certainly, I do not see any reason why this country should not make experiments similar to those that have been carried out by both the United States and Soviet Russia. That is all that we are doing. [HON. MEMBERS: "Following them."] I have said that we are prepared to work out systems of limitation. Personally, I think it desirable and I think it possible.

As to the question of danger to people in the vicinity, we have considered that carefully, and if the hon. Member has studied this question he will know that as the practice of these tests has con- tinued it has enabled us to arrange them so as very much to diminish the risk that took place from the earlier tests.

Mr. Gaitskell

May I return to the question of the Government's willingness to discuss the methods of regulating and limiting explosions? Were any precise proposals put forward by the Government on this matter in the disarmament discussions, and, if so, were they discussed and what objections were raised to them? What are the obstacles in the way of reaching agreement on this extremely vital matter?

The Prime Minister

We put forward in the Anglo-French proposals suggestions for various degrees in which this matter could be handled first by a limitation—this is in the White Paper which has been published—of nuclear tests at a certain stage and then later their banning. That is what is in the proposals we and the French put forward together. I imagine—it is not for me to say—that when the United Nations Commission discusses the various proposals in six weeks' time, or less, it will take into account the Anglo-French proposals—I imagine they would be very high on the list—and discuss them. I think that the right hon. Gentleman will probably agree that that is the best place for examination to take place of what can be done.

Mr. Gaitskell

Will the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance—I am sure he will—that the Government will pursue those proposals in the Commission with the greatest possible energy?

The Prime Minister

We are certainly in favour of the proposals we put forward with our French allies, and certainly will support them.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

We cannot debate the matter now. There is no Question before the House.