HC Deb 21 May 1957 vol 570 cc1035-9
The Prime Minister

With permission, I will now answer Questions Nos. 45, 46 and 49 together.

Reports that have been received since 16th May, when I gave a short answer to the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition, have confirmed that both operationally and scientifically the test explosion was successful. I think it right to give what information I can to the House now, although as hon. Members will appreciate, I cannot add much to the announcement made on Friday night by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Supply. Scientific and technical reports are still coming in and it will be some weeks before the scientific assessment of the tests will be complete. I should, however, say that for reasons of national security I shall be unable to pass on to the House any detailed information about the precise yield, type and design of the weapon exploded. I can state that this explosion makes a notable advance in the development of our deterrent power.

Following a series of rehearsals made to ensure certainty of operation, the bomb containing the nuclear assembly was dropped on the first run over the target area in clear weather. Most elaborate arrangements were made to ensure that the explosion caused no risk to life, health or property and these worked according to plan. The detonation took place high above the sea in an area far away from inhabited islands, and normal shipping lanes and air routes. Before the operation it was confirmed that weather conditions and in particular wind conditions were such as to enable the operation to be conducted with complete safety and the Task Force confirmed that the area in which, in the prevailing weather conditions, ships might have been exposed to some risk, was clear of all shipping.

The base of the fireball was well above the surface of the sea. As a consequence, radioactive fall-out was insignificant and a survey after a few hours showed very little contamination even below the point of burst. I am satisfied, on the advice that I have received, that any addition that this test will make to the worldwide fall-out of fission products will be negligible.

I should like to take this opportunity of congratulating all those concerned on the success which has been achieved.

There is one other matter which I wish to mention. I think there has been some misunderstanding about information given to the Government of New Zealand, and I have explained the position to Mr. Holland. The United Kingdom Government had, of course, at a very early date informed the New Zealand Government, as it had the Australian Government, of the general timing of our test and of course observers from both Governments attended the test. In the nature of these things, however, it is not possible to forecast the exact time or day on which a test will take place. The precise timing of a test can seldom be determined more than a few hours in advance because of meteorological and other factors. Indeed I did not myself know in advance precisely when the test was to take place. I should like to say how much the United Kingdom Government appreciated all the assistance which the New Zealand Government are giving in connection with these tests and I feel sure that any misunderstanding there may have been has now been cleard up.

Mr. Mason

I am very much obliged to the right hon. Gentleman for that very full statement and, if it was necessary for us to have a test, I am also pleased that there has been no noticeable increase in radiostrontium in the atmosphere. Is it the Government's intention to carry on with thermo-nuclear tests, in view of the rapidly rising public concern all over the world? Secondly, is not this continued defiance of this public concern causing anxiety?

The Prime Minister

I am grateful for what the hon. Gentleman said in general terms. The answer to the first part of the supplementary question is that a series of tests has been planned and we shall go forward with them. With regard to the second part, the hon. Gentleman is conscious, no doubt, that a very heavy responsibility falls upon me and upon the Government, which we are trying to discharge, and that we can only discharge it, of course, with the approval and support of Parliament.

Mr. Rankin

Will the Prime Minister think again about the first part of his Answer? Since he knows that this bomb works, would he not now consider an agreement to ban all future tests, or at least, in the interests of international health, to limit the amount of fission material which is now being poured into the stratosphere?

The Prime Minister

With regard to the first part of that supplementary question, perhaps the hon. Member sums up rather too cursorily the result of this test when he says "He knows that this bomb works". There is a great deal of work to be done in connection with the application of a weapon of this kind to the purposes for which it has to be prepared. Although I am anxious to reduce these tests to the absolute minimum, it is my duty, so long as this policy is pursued, to see that these tests are effective, and that I must do. With regard to the second part of the question, we are discussing, and are only too anxious to continue discussing the matter, either through the Disarmament Sub-Committee or through any other direct negotiation.

Mr. E. Fletcher

If, as the Prime Minister claims, the result of this test has been successful and if, as is widely stated in the American Press, we are now very far in advance of any device which has been exploded either by Russia or America, has not the time arrived when we should respond to the suggestions made by the Prime Ministers of India and Ceylon to call a conference of the Powers concerned in order to secure the suspension of further tests by all concerned?

The Prime Minister

That is the same question which other hon. Gentlemen have asked and which I have tried to answer. I have to take the advice of the experts as to what is necessary. I assure the House that we will do the minimum that is necessary to secure their purpose. With regard to the second part of the question, I have dealt with it in my previous Answer.

Mr. A. Henderson

Why is it that the Prime Minister is unable to give any indication of the number of tests that the Government intend to hold? Is there any special reason why the public should not be told how many are likely to take place?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir; because I do not think even the experts themselves know. It depends partly on the collection of the scientific data as a result of this one.

Mr. Gaitskell

Is the Prime Minister not proposing to make any reply to, or comment on, the appeal made by the Prime Ministers of India and Ceylon? Did any consultation take place with those two Commonwealth Prime Ministers before the test explosion took place?

The Prime Minister

No, Sir. I have explained the difficulty with regard to prior information, but I think that our position is well known and well understood, although there may be differences of opinion. On the other hand, in a very few weeks we shall have the opportunity of meeting and discussing the whole problem with those Prime Ministers and other Prime Ministers of the Commonwealth.

Mr. Strachey

Would not the Prime Minister agree that his experts will always tell him that more tests are necessary? Would he not now tell us what obstacles remain to attempting, at any rate, a general agreement for the cessation of all tests?

The Prime Minister

With regard to the first part of that supplementary question, I have already said that I am not a scientific expert in this matter. If the right hon. Member will put down a specific Question I shall try to answer it, but I am satisfied that what is proposed to be done is the minimum that is necessary and will be the minimum necessary to achieve the purpose.

Mr. Bevan

Is it not a fact that the United States of America has had the hydrogen bomb for some time and will continue to make further tests—

Hon. Members: And the Russians.

Mr. Bevan

—and the Russians? If we follow their example shall we not by making more and more tests in order to catch up with each other and perfect the mechanism available and if other nations do the same, shall we not be poisoned before war ever starts?

The Prime Minister

With regard to that, I am responsible primarily for the advice which I accept on this series of tests, of which we gave notice some time ago and of which the first has been made. As regards the larger question, we have debated that fully—

Mr. Bevan

We have not debated it.

The Prime Minister

—and I understood we were going to debate it again.

Mr. Beswick

As one who thought from the beginning that Britain could bettor spend her resources in other ways, may I take this opportunity of saying that I am sure that we all take some satisfaction in the demonstration of perseverance and skill of our scientists concerned? The Prime Minister went out of his way during the Suez debate to say that one of the lessons that he drew from that unhappy affair was that we must be a nuclear Power. We have now demonstrated that we can be a nuclear Power. Can the Prime Minister tell the House what he is going to do with this extra power in, for example, future negotiations with Colonel Nasser?

The Prime Minister

I repeat that I believe we are in a better position for the negotiations and bargaining which are taking place in the Disarmament Sub-Committee than we would have been if we had not undertaken these tests.