HC Deb 18 March 1958 vol 584 cc1097-106

The following Questions stood upon the Order Paper:

51. Mr. G. THOMAS

To ask the Prime Minister what consultations have taken place between the United States Government and Her Majesty's Government concerning joint security measures against accidental dropping of nuclear weapons; and whether he will make a statement.


To ask the Prime Minister whether, in view of the second accident to a United States aeroplane carrying an atomic bomb, with accompanying destruction, and the renewed warnings of scientists against the danger to life over a wide area resulting from such an accident with a nuclear bomb containing plutonium, he will now prohibit British-based aeroplanes from carrying atom bombs or hydrogen bombs on patrol or in training flights.

53. Mrs. CASTLE

To ask the Prime Minister whether he will institute an inquiry, in conjunction with the United States Strategic Air Command, into the efficacy of the bomb-lock system of B-47 jet bombers stationed in this country; and if he will issue instructions that no bombs are to be carried by these aeroplanes on patrol or any other flights pending the outcome of the inquiry.


To ask the Prime Minister, in view of the recent accidental release of a nuclear bomb in the United States of America, if he will arrange for an inquiry to be made into the efficacy of bomb-holding mechanisms of British aircraft, and request the United States authorities to do the same in regard to all of their aircraft which use, or may use, British bases; and if he will give an assurance that patrol flights of aircraft carrying hydrogen bombs, whether armed or not, over United Kingdom territory have ceased pending the results of such inquiries.

56. Mr. H. DAVIES

To ask the Prime Minister in view of the fact that United States strategic bombers using bases in this country often start their flights in the United States of America, if the United States Government has yet provided him with an official account of the B-47 bomber incident, when an unarmed nuclear weapon was jettisoned near Florence, South Carolina; and what safeguards there are to prevent such an occurrence from such patrol bombers in this country.


To ask the Prime Minister if, in view of the further evidence provided by the recent accident in the United States of America that precautions taken with regard to the carrying by air of nuclear weapons are liable to human and mechanical error, he will now seek to end the carrying of nuclear weapons by aircraft over the United Kingdom.

61. Mr. HALE

To ask the Prime Minister whether, in view of the recent incident in the United States of America when a nuclear bomb was accidentally released and of the danger involved in an accident to an aeroplane in this country carrying atom or hydrogen bombs, he will make a further statement on the consequences of such an aeroplane catching fire on landing and thus producing lethal gas.


To ask the Prime Minister whether he is aware of the growing uneasiness in this country, as a consequence of the atomic bomb accident in South Carolina, concerning the safety precautions in aircraft carrying nuclear weapons; and if he will now put an end to the peace-time practice of carrying these weapons over Great Britain.


To ask the Prime Minister if, in view of the renewed disquiet about the danger to the civil population that might come as a result of an accident to an areoplane carrying a nuclear weapon, he will make a further statement to relieve public anxiety.


To ask the Prime Minister if, in the light of the accidental dropping of an atom bomb in the course of a training flight in the United States of America, Her Majesty's Government will now reconsider the policy of permitting the carriage of atom and hydrogen bombs by aeroplanes flying over the United Kingdom.

67. Mr. RANKIN

To ask the Prime Minister if, in view of the recent accidental dropping of an unprimed nuclear bomb with serious consequences to many people, he will now impose a ban on the carrying of nuclear bombs in any aircraft flying over Great Britain.

70. Mr. HURD

To ask the Prime Minister what further measures have been agreed with the United States Government to ensure that there cannot be any risk of nuclear explosion through accidents, on the ground or in the air, to any military aircraft using bases in Great Britain.

71. Mr. MASON

To ask the Prime Minister if he will seek a further report from the United States Atomic Energy Commission of the accidental release from an aircraft of a nuclear bomb and the dangers arising therefrom; and whether he will consider making representations to the United States Government to ground United States aircraft patrolling with nuclear bombs over the United Kingdom, pending the consideration of such report.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Macmillan)

With permission, I will answer Questions Nos. 51, 52, 53, 55, 56, 57, 61, 63, 64, 66, 67, 70 and 71 together.

The cause of the recent accident in the Southern United States was quickly known. Consequently, the United States authorities were able to inform us almost immediately of the new arrangements which should prevent any repetition. These new arrangements are known to all concerned.

As regards the result of the accident, preliminary reports appear to confirm the statements which my right hon. Friend the Lord Privy Seal and I have made about the possible damage from an accident of this sort. With regard to the carriage of nuclear weapons by aircraft using United Kingdom bases, the position is as has been previously stated—most recently stated—by my right hon. Friend the Lord Privy Seal on 4th February. Nuclear weapons are only carried on special operational exercises, or on training exercises in which it is necessary to transport the weapons with their aircraft from one airfield to another.

Bombs carried in these exercises are never ready for instantaneous use. The process of arming the bombs requires an elaborate procedure by the crew of the aircraft and the bombs cannot be made ready for use accidentally.

Mr. Henderson

May I ask the Prime Minister whether he has considered the possibilities of navigational errors in relation to these flights? Does not he recollect that in March, 1953, a Royal Air Force Lincoln bomber was shot down by Soviet fighters after it had crossed into East German territory through, or as a result of, a navigational error? In these circumstances, will not the right hon. Gentleman agree that British-based bombers should be restricted in their flights over European territory, if they are carrying hydrogen bombs?

The Prime Minister

I will take note of that. Perhaps the right hon. and learned Gentleman would allow me to deal with it at a later date. I do not know precisely what is the situation. These Questions all related to an accident over friendly territory, either our own or, as in this case, over the United States of America.

Mr. Beswick

Does the Prime Minister realise that over the whole history of the development of nuclear weapons, or the whole history of the development of aviation, there is a history of mistakes which have been made once and rectified afterwards? Does he realise that now we are dealing with a matter where, if a mistake is made which involves the dropping of a live bomb, it will be the final mistake for anything up to a million people in this country? In those circumstances, is not the only real protection the prohibition of any flights over this country by aircraft carrying this weapon whether it is, so-called, fused" or not?

The Prime Minister

No. Sir. I think that that would be far too limiting to the work which has to be done in training and in the maintenance of the deterrent. Anxieties have been properly expressed about the possibility of an accident of the kind which took place. The one which actually happened has been in exact conformity with what I was authorised, on the advice I had, to tell the House.

Mrs. Castle

Is it not clear that if an accident does take place, the explosion of the T.N.T. content of the bomb alone is sufficient to cause considerable damage; and that, furthermore, scientists cannot say quite definitely that the explosion of the T.N.T. element will not and cannot under any circumstances set off a nuclear reaction, even though the bomb is unarmed? In view of this, is not it absurd to go on taking these risks?

The Prime Minister

There was, of course, an explosion of T.N.T. in this case, but that might have happened in the case of bombers of what used to be called the conventional kind over a long numbers of years. As a matter of fact, such an explosion would have been more serious, because it would have been a larger explosion. But I think it has been proved by this accident, and that it is scientifically a fact, that the explosion of the T.N.T. element could not detonate the nuclear element. That was the danger which had been apprehended and that some material might be scattered in some way. That was the danger we had in mind. I think that the result of this accident shows that, although it is something we must always watch for, it has worked out very much as predicted and very little damage was done.

Mr. Zilliacus

Is it not a fact that this particular explosion of T.N.T. blew a hole 50 feet wide and 35 feet deep? Would not a bomb of that sort, dropped on a built-up area, cause damage that even the Government might regard as not negligible? Is it not a fact that if the bomb had been loaded with plutonium, that plutonium would have scattered over a wide area? Is not plutonium so poisonous that one millionth of a gramme is all that a human being can breathe and survive?

The Prime Minister

If the hon. Gentleman puts scientific questions to me I must have notice and advice before answering them.

The hon. Gentleman will recall, as will other hon. Members, that in a conventional bomb the explosion of T.N.T. causes considerable damage. I would only say that this form, which is the charge for the nuclear bomb, when regarded as a T.N.T. bomb is not so dangerous as many which we had to suffer during the course of the war.

Mr. Zilliacus

Then why not stop T.N.T. bombs flying as well?

The Prime Minister

That is a new policy—that we should not only abandon the nuclear weapon, but also the conventional bombing weapon. Perhaps that is a new policy which we shall hear about.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

Can the Prime Minister tell us whether any of these bombs are transported to the American base at Prestwick? Is he aware that there is widespread disquiet in that area that some day there will be an accident and one of these things may go off? Can he give us a definite and categorical assurance that no harm will be done?

The Prime Minister

I am not prepared to make a statement about the precise bases at which one of these bombs may be at any particular moment.

Mr. Bevan

Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that there has been some change in this matter since these Questions started? At first, it was suggested that it was necessary to have these bombs in the air as a means of deterrence. That has now been dropped entirely and the Prime Minister has said today that it is still necessary to carry them in the act of training. What precisely is meant by that? Are they being assembled in the air by the crews in an act of training, or are they being carried merely because of their weight? What is the point about carrying them for training purposes? If public anxiety is to be allayed properly in this matter, which is what we all want, we should be told what is the explanation for carrying the bomb for training?

The Prime Minister

These are carried partly for training, as I explained, and partly for operational exercises. It is necessary, in the course of these operational exercises, that the bomb should be carried and that it should not be separated from the machine.

Mr. Bevan

May I be allowed to follow that up? I am quite certain that the right hon. Gentleman is not anxious to be obscure, because of the great alarm about this. What is really meant? What is meant by carrying the bomb for operational training? Will he be more precise about it? Does it mean that the crew is, in fact, engaged in assembling the parts of the bomb in the air? If so they may well reach the point of danger. If they are not doing so, what is meant by operational training and carrying the bomb?

The Prime Minister

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, because it is difficult, in question and answer, to make these things precise without saying what it would be contrary to the public interest that I should say. There is no permanent or standing patrol. If I used those words at one time, I did not mean a permanent, standing, routine patrol, like a policeman on a beat; there is nothing of that kind.

There are training operations carried on by our own bombers, by bombers based upon those bases, and by other bombers based upon other bases. In that training, it is necessary and wise, for training purposes, to carry both the bomb and the loading apparatus. The bomb is never loaded or armed by the apparatus in the air.

The right hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Bevan) will, perhaps, recognise, also, since, in some of these exercises which take place for that purpose very large numbers altogether are involved, that it would not be a good idea that they should be separated for a very long time from their armament; there would be risks there. Further, part of the training is, of course, in dispersal, and in this case the point of the training is a rapid dispersal, to carry the weapon together with the bomber from one airfield to another.

Mr. Gresham Cooke

Do not all these questions really highlight the advantages to this country of having rocket missile sites, since rockets do not fly around on operational training, are silent, and do not cause any accident in peace time because they do not fly in peace time?

The Prime Minister

Those are certainly advantages to be taken into account.

Mr. Hale

Will the Prime Minister say why he told the House that he would answer Question No. 61, which deals specifically with the risk of an aeroplane coming down in flames carrying the bomb and emitting lethal gas, and then did not answer it? Further, when my hon. Friend the Member for Gorton (Mr. Zilliacus) put it as a supplementary, why did the right hon. Gentleman say that he must have notice of it?

The Prime Minister

It was put in a form which I thought was sufficiently covered by the general statement which I made. I thought that it was convenient to the House to take all these Questions together, but if I have unwittingly—I meant no discourtesy to him—failed to reply to the hon. Gentleman, if he will be good enough to put the Question down again I will try to give a correct scientific reply.

Mr. Hale

On a point of order. While I appreciate the courtesy of the right hon. Gentleman, the trouble is that the Table rules that one cannot put down a Question again if it has been answered, and the Table rules that a Question has been answered if the Prime Minister says that he has answered it.

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman is always very fair. We have been a long time in the House together. If it is so ruled, and if I may unsay that I have answered Question No. 61, I am quite prepared to answer it again. Alternatively, I will write to the hon. Gentleman and give him the best answer that I can. I do not want to take advantage of what did seem to me to be for the general advantage of the House in trying to answer the Questions as a whole.

Mr. Harold Davies

As the right hon. Gentleman is obviously himself bewildered and is not aware of the lethal effects or that T.N.T. itself can scatter plutonium, why does he not, as a sane British gentleman, instead of carrying on this provocation of the balance of terror, gather up his courage and suspend the flights?

Mr. Speaker

Order. All this argument should be left out of supplementary questions.

Mr. Gaitskell

May I press the Prime Minister a little further on this matter of training? He defends the practice, I think, partly on the ground that it is necessary for training purposes and partly on the ground that it is necessary in operational exercises.

What exactly does training consist of? Can he give us an assurance, first, that at any rate in the course of the training, there is no question of the process being gone through by which the bomb is armed, as it is called? Secondly, can he say, if that is the case, why it is necessary to carry the bomb at all? What do the pilots, and so on, have to be trained in so far as the bomb is concerned?

The Prime Minister

So far as the aeroplane bases in this country are concerned, dummy bombs are used as much as possible; but I am informed, and I believe it to be the fact, that we must train our air and ground crews to handle the real but unarmed weapons in exercises so that they can do their job efficiently and have confidence in the whole system. Moreover, exercises such as training for dispersal involve moving aircraft from one airfield to another, and, therefore, moving their weapons. That. I think, comes within the transport which is blessed by the right hon. Gentleman.

Thus, the only point which remains—if we should have these conversations, I will try to explain it—is why the air staff in all countries feels that there should be some degree of training with the real weapon in order to give confidence to the crew in being able to handle it.

Mr. Mason

Is the Prime Minister not aware that this very matter of handling and conveying nuclear weapons and the accidents arising therefrom will be with us for some considerable time, and that it should be our duty to minimise such eventualities as much as possible? As he has not convinced the House that it is necessary to arm our patrol planes with nuclear bombs, will he not agree that these patrols should now cease?

The Prime Minister

These are matters, of course, about which there can be differences of opinion as to method, though there is none between us in our desire to have this as safe as it can possibly be. There is also the responsibility which I or any other Minister has to bear, and I have done my best to explain very frankly to the House the situation as it now is.

Mr. Paget

In view of the danger to humanity—and, of course, all humanity is in danger—will the right hon. Gentleman ask the Russians whether they will follow the American example and make their doubtless wide experience of accidents with hydrogen bombs generally available?

The Prime Minister

I think that that is a very helpful suggestion. Possibly the hon. and learned Gentleman would like to start a little correspondence on his own on the subject.