HC Deb 29 October 1957 vol 575 cc32-6
52. Mr. Peart

asked the Prime Minister if he will make available the findings of the inquiry into the accident to No. 1 reactor, Windscale atomic energy plant.

55. Mr. G. Brown

asked the Prime Minister whether he will make a statement on the incident at the Windscale Atomic Station and, in particular, whether he will set up an independent inquiry into both the causes and the steps taken to deal with its consequences.

56. Mr. F. Anderson

asked the Prime Minister whether he will make a statement on the accident at the Atomic Energy Establishment, Windscale, No. 1 pile, on Thursday, 10th October; and if he will favourably consider setting up an independent committee to investigate all the circumstances and conditions of this accident.

The Prime Minister

On 15th October, the Atomic Energy Authority, with my approval, appointed a Committee of Inquiry under the Chairmanship of Sir William Penney, having as its other members, Dr. Schonland, Deputy Director of the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell, Professor Kay and Professor Diamond, who are members of the Authority's panel of engineering consultants. This Committee began work on 17th October and the Authority received the report yesterday.

The terms of reference of the Committee were to investigate the cause of the accident at Windscale No. 1 pile on 10th October, 1957, and the measures taken to deal with it and its consequences; and to report.

The Authority decided with my approval that an inquiry of this kind, concerned as it is with matters of a highly technical scientific character, could best be conducted by a Committee of eminent scientists with experience of atomic energy who are unconnected with the industrial group of the Atomic Energy Authority, under whose control Windscale is.

I will make a further statement to the House when the report of Sir William Penney's Committee has been assessed. At the suggestion of the Authority, I am asking that the Medical Research Council should give their own independent views on the information collected so far as it affects public health.

Meanwhile, the Government are fully aware of the public anxiety that has been caused both generally and locally. At the same time I would appeal to the Members not to press me to any premature judgment on the whole matter.

Mr. Peart

I should like to press the Prime Minister to accept that the House really has the right to know the findings of this Committee. I recognise that there may be questions of security and that there are technical issues, but on the broad issue of the findings of the Committee this House should be informed and Members should be able to cross-examine Ministers on this. Will the Prime Minister, therefore, give an assurance that a report will be given to this House?

The Prime Minister

I will certainly make a full report to this House. I received this report myself only this morning. It is very technical, and not very easy for a layman to follow. I think it is only fair that the Authority, who received it late last night—or yesterday—should have an opportunity of consulting me. I hope to make a further and a full statement early in the next Session.

Mr. Brown

Without wishing to press the Prime Minister on the details of the report at this stage,—for one does understand what he says about that—may I ask him whether he will reserve judgment on the question whether there should be a further inquiry under the chairmanship of someone who could also be a scientist and also have technical knowledge but who is not as closely concerned as Sir William Penney is with both the security side and the work, which many people think had some influence on the incident, and also with the actual experiment being carried on? Because, in the nature of things, people are told so little about a thing of this kind, is it not clear that the question of those who make the inquiries becomes disproportionately important in people's minds? If their anxiety is to be put aside, may I ask the Prime Minister to consider that further?

The Prime Minister

Of course, I will consider that. I am very anxious that the public should be fully reassured. Certainly at this stage I can conceive of no man who had the knowledge of Sir William Penney and was not directly concerned with this part of the work, and the object was to get the most rapid report by the most competent investigators. Perhaps the House will be better able to judge when I make a fuller statement.

Mr. Fort

Can my right hon. Friend confirm that a similar accident could not occur in the types of reactor being built at Calder Hall and built for the electricity authorities as happened at the Windscale plant?

The Prime Minister

I think that, broadly speaking, that is the case.

Mr. Anderson

Do we take it that the Prime Minister has not made up his mind yet about the question of an independent inquiry? Is he aware that the constitution of this investigation committee lacks the confidence of the people generally in the West Cumberland area? [An HON. MEMBER: "No."] I have been on the spot and I know. Is the Prime Minister aware that the general impression amongst the public has been such that there has been a complete lack of confidence in the operation of this business? For instance, there was a real lack of information given to the public over so many hours. It was many hours before it was known to the public. Will the Prime Minister see to it that the public's point of view is taken into account as well as that of those people who are concerned with security?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir. As to the public point of view as far as public health is concerned, at the suggestion of the Authority I am asking the Medical Research Council to deal with all that aspect. I think that in itself means an independent inquiry into that aspect, or dealing independently with that aspect which affects individuals and public health. As to the very highly technical character of the scientific aspect of the report, I am studying it, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members will reserve judgment until I am able to make a full statement. These are very distinguished public servants in all ranks, and I think that they at least deserve from us that we reserve judgment until a fuller statement can be made.

Mr. Gaitskell

While recognising that it is difficult to pursue this matter until we have further knowledge of what the report contains, may I ask the Prime Minister whether he appreciates the great importance of allaying public anxiety in this matter and assuring the public that nothing that has not got to be hidden on security grounds is kept from the public? Will the Prime Minister, therefore, consider seriously either publishing the report or following the suggestion of my right hon. Friend the Member for Belper (Mr. G. Brown) of a further independent inquiry?

The Prime Minister

I will consider all these things, but I am also interested in maintaining, as I am sure is the right hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Gaitskell), the tremendous, unique reputation of our scientists in this field throughout the world.

Mr. Brown

To help to allay anxiety, can the Prime Minister consider giving now or in a further statement a categorical assurance that what happened at Windscale cannot in any circumstances happen at the C.E.A. stations? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there is a great deal of anxiety because of a misunderstanding about the position of the C.E.A. stations, and that it would help if he made it quite clear that they are something quite different?

The Prime Minister

I will certainly bear that in mind when I draft my fuller statement.

Mr. Vane

While the people of the north-west of England are naturally concerned and are anxious to hear the considered opinion of those who are carrying out the investigations, is my right hon. Friend aware that they are in no sense either stupid or alarmist as some hon. Members opposite would have the House believe?