HC Deb 10 December 1957 vol 579 cc1071-4
45. Mr. Zilliacus

asked the Prime Minister whether, in view of the danger of the release of highly toxic radioactive materials in case of fire supervening on the crash of a plane loaded with atomic or hydrogen bombs, he will prohibit the carrying of such missiles on patrol by any planes based in this country.

46. Mrs. Castle

asked the Prime Minister whether he has satisfied himself that there would be no risk of escape of radioactive or toxic material from hydrogen bombs carried by United States planes on patrol in this country in case of fire following a crash by any of these planes.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Macmillan)

I would refer the hon. Members to the reply which I gave on Thursday last.

Mr. Zilliacus

While appreciating that the Prime Minister has replied to a good many Questions of this kind, may I ask why it is necessary to subject the people of this country to the risk of a super Windscale accident or even to the touching off of a world war by accident when in civil defence the Government are prepared to stake the lives of the people of this country on the assumption that there will be long enough notice of an outbreak of hostilities to permit the evacuation of 12 million people? Why not base both policies on the assumption that there will be long enough notice to obviate the necessity at any rate of planes carrying hydrogen bombs?

The Prime Minister

I think the hon. Member is now addressing himself to a new and different question. This Question relates to the possibility of an accident arising from the crash of an aeroplane carrying a bomb not charged by which some of the material would be dispersed. It has nothing to do with the other point he is now raising as to the general policy of having our own or American bombers on patrol for operational purposes.

Mrs. Castle

Although the Prime Minister said that danger arising from a crash is limited, he has not denied that a danger does exist, and in view of this, would not it be common sense at any rate to arrange for the training planes to carry dummy bombs on their training flights?

The Prime Minister

I was asked about the danger, the character of it, and I did my best on Thursday, without being an expert, to inform myself and to inform the House as best I could as to the character of that danger. It is very limited. Perhaps I may take the opportunity to correct a small misunderstanding which may have arisen. It is true that uranium 235 neither burns nor oxidises so readily as plutonium. That is the main reason why the hazards are less from the activities of uranium 235 per unit weight, far less than from a similar weight of plutonium. However, hazards arise really because these are materials which, if they are in this position, emit alpha particles or rays, but the range of alpha particles in the air is very short, in fact less than one millimetre; that is, less than one-thirtieth of an inch. It can, therefore, be seen that any hazard from this form of radiation is very slight. The possibility of ingestion and of external hazards is really negligible.

Mr. Warbey

On a point of order. It would appear to me that the Prime Minister is now covering matters which are raised in my Question No. 60, yet the right hon. Gentleman did not link that Question with the other two Questions he is answering.

Mr. Speaker

We have not got there yet.

The Prime Minister

I sometimes link Questions together and then, of course, I get into some difficulty, so I thought I would try to go steadily through the Questions, but I am afraid that Scotland has been too persistent.

Mr. Bevan

Hon. Members on both sides of the House are still quite puzzled about the present situation. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] If they are not puzzled they ought to be. The right hon. Gentleman has told us on several occasions that these bombs are not live in the sense that they are capable of immediate detonation. Nevertheless, they have been carried in the air in these bombers for training purposes. I cannot quite understand why they should be carried for training purposes. Is it because of the weight involved? if so, cannot they put some ballast on board the planes to the same amount of weight? [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Certainly. Hon. Members opposite raised this question with me and cannot quite understand what is involved here at all. If those bombs are not live, then, of course, the danger does not arise except when they are precipitated by the collapse of the bombing plane itself. Why have the bombs at all in the circumstances?

The Prime Minister

That is another question. I tried to answer the points raised about the scientific results of the crash of a bomb not charged but, perhaps, breaking up. I have tried to explain, as I did last week, that they seemed to me to be very small and probably could easily be dealt with by localised methods and that the crash was most likely to take place, if it did take place, as we all know, either on taking off or on landing. On the wider question, there are Questions on the Order Paper. If the right hon. Gentleman will put a Question on the Order Paper, I will do my best to answer it, but this matter does not arise from the technical and scientific questions which I am trying to answer today.

Mr. Bevan

May I, with respect, ask the right hon. Gentleman to consider this point? My question is not a wide one and it arises directly out of a statement that he has made. What is the necessity of having these bombs on the planes at all in the circumstances which he has described? Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that the reason we are persisting in this question is because information is reaching us that all the bombs carried from the various places are not in the condition which he describes?

The Prime Minister

That is a quite different question. If the right hon. Gentleman will put it on the Order Paper I will get accurate information.

Mr. Harold Davies

It is time that the House was told.