HC Deb 20 March 1958 vol 584 cc1565-76

Motion made and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Colonel J. H. Harrison.]

10.10 p.m.

Mr. Roy Mason (Barnsley)

First, Mr. Speaker, I must say how grateful I am to you personally for giving me a second opportunity to initiate this Adjournment debate. I fully realise that, had I taken the first one, I should have been sitting on these benches until the early hours of the morning before being able to raise the particular matter in which I am interested.

My reason for raising the issue of the need for more information on research and development of the peaceful uses of atomic energy arises from the many Questions I have put on this subject and the scanty information I have gleaned from the replies. The culminating point was the blanket of secrecy which, foolishly I think, descended on our success with Zeta. In spite of my Questions and the many Press reports of this magnificent achievement, the Government refused to speak.

The fly in the ointment, I think, was the Joint United Kingdom-United States Declassification Committee. American influence predominated to stop any announcement. No one knows to what degree Admiral Strauss, Chairman of the American Atomic Energy Commission, was responsible. Hazarding a guess, I would say that he was, in the main, responsible.

I have kept a number of cuttings of newspaper comments. A few weeks after the success of Zeta, but many weeks before the Government made the announcement that we had managed to build up that temperature successfully and pointed the way towards harnessing hydrogen power, the News Chronicle, on 10th December, had a headline: H-energy gag on British Scientists. Harwell wants to tell all. But Americans won't agree. The Sunday Express said: United States gag 'riles' British H-power scientists. Again, there was a comment in the Yorkshire Evening Post, which said that the Government won't talk about the newest discovery of the nuclear age. So it went on. Following the comment on 10th December by the News Chronicle, the Observer, in its headline on the front page, said: Harnessing H-Bomb; News soon and said, in the course of its article: The Atomic Energy Authority originally planned to make this announcement last October, but it was delayed by pressure from Admiral Lewis Strauss, Chairman of the United States Atomic Energy Commission. I believe that to be substantially correct.

The Americans were, and still are, behind us in this work. We might well ask ourselves at this stage, because it is relevant: why this should be so? First, they tried to explore too many avenues, none with great success—atomic energy power stations, rockets, nuclear stations, nuclear fusion, and so on. Prior to the Sputnik shock, America suffered from McCarthyism. There was little interchange between the universities and research establishments. The anti-Red complex curtailed the free exchange of ideas and progress.

Later, demands for economy cuts blunted progress in all their experiments, even those which were showing promise. Then, of course, the Sputnik launching was responsible for pressure being applied by the United States on the United Kingdom to stop the announcements of our success in paving the way towards taming and harnessing the hydrogen bomb for industrial use. Admiral Strauss, it would seem, anyway, was afraid of a Sputnik and Zeta panic in his department in Washington.

We all realise that thermo-nuclear power will revolutionise our lives. Major industries will be hit, particularly oil and coal; also, a relatively new one, uranium mining, may be affected. However, because of the rigid establishment of big business in the United States these industries, oil, coal, etc., will tend to retard atomic progress in America. The United States sees quite clearly that only if there is a more concerted effort on its part can it hope to compete with us in thermo-nuclear research and with Russia in space missiles. So far, the Americans lag behind, and only when the United States Government have won their internal, domestic battle, can they start to compete successfully in these matters.

Of course, we have an urgent need for this new form of power, and this is proving a strong driving force. I should like to praise the Harwell team for their magnificent achievement. It was, of course, of Commonwealth composition, but that is part of our strength. We have the scientists, although perhaps not enough. We certainly have the skill, and, given sufficient finance, we can maintain a lead in applying atomic energy to peaceful and industrial uses. Despite Admiral Strauss's pressure on the Declassification Committee, it was most obvious that American lay opinion was not being fooled either. American newspapers made it plain that the success belonged to the Commonwealth team at Harwell. Admiral Strauss, in this case has made a fool of himself. Indeed, the whole exercise over the past few months has been a foolish one.

If Anglo-American co-operation in the peaceful application of atomic energy is to succeed, amateur exercises in "who dun it" must cease. Is it not true that the Harwell team desired its release long before it was given? Why disappoint these brilliant men? Was not this their finest hour? Why is it that the Government should have suppressed the announcement, allowing the Declassification Committee, at least, to stop the Government from allowing this announcement to be made much earlier? Zeta has paved the way. It has proved that a thermonuclear power station is a possibility, and other exciting advances will follow.

There are bound to be milestones of progress. Shall we, on these occasions, receive the news immediately? Can we have assurances that the Declassification Committee will not cause any more delays of future announcements? It seems to be a committee with incredible power. Few people are aware of its composition, or when it meets. No one knows to what extent it has been classified and declassified, but is it not proving a very strong barrier between Harwell and the Government? Is this not a publicly-owned industry? Why cannot we have periodic Government statements?

Zeta II is now being designed. I would like to receive assurances from the hon. Gentleman that there will be no skimping of financial aid for this project, and that it will continue to receive priority and that we shall, if we query it, receive statements of its progress in the House.

Can the hon. Gentleman also say to what extent serious consideration has been given to the division of labour and the allocation of tasks in the nuclear field between the American and British scientists? I am convinced that because of our differing degrees of desire for thermonuclear power, and also because of the greater resistance to its practical use by the business interests of the nation, we shall forge ahead. There could well be a satisfactory arrangement, and this may be taking place, but I do not know to what degree. The Americans are specialising in the military development of atomic energy coupled with missile research and development. We, of course, are specialising in its industrial application.

I now switch to the questions that I should like to ask the hon. Gentleman. I shall ask quite a number. Indeed, this is the reason for my initiating the Adjournment debate. We have been short of information. Will the hon. Gentleman say to what extent the Atomic Energy Authority has applied its mind to producing an air-cooling system for the atomic power stations, thereby giving us the added advantage of being able to build a station anywhere than on the coastline as at present? Further, how strong is the link between the Atomic Energy Authority and other industries, private and nationalised? How are they kept informed in advance of engineering techniques and the uses of new metals, particularly heat-resisting metals? To what extent is the Atomic Energy Authority farming out experiments to private industry?

In view of the recent experience of the declassification Committee causing frustration among our leading scientists, how far are the Government satisfied that scientists and engineers working in the atomic energy field are not being stunted and embarrassed by unnecessary restrictions? What steps are being taken to step up the increase in skilled staff required for the furtherance of thermo-nuclear power. Is it not true to say that Zeta developments will demand four times the number already employed?

I notice that the Government have managed to secure an agreement with Italy to the effect that used uranium rods from their atomic power station—which is largely being supplied by us—will always come back here for processing. It is not a watertight agreement, but I think that the Government have done extremely well to get such a measure of agreement on their first export. I should like to ask to what extent the Government anticipate getting that measure of agreement and the same understanding with Japan.

Can the Parliamentary Secretary say whether we are prospecting for unanium in this country and, if so, to what extent? Are there any prospects of our cutting down initial expenditure by mining our own uranium here? I noticed in The Times of 3rd February that the Canadian Minister of Trade, Mr. Churchill, had announced that arrangements had been completed for the sale to the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority of approximately 105 million dollars—about £38 million—worth of uranium, in additon to a 115 million dollar order decided upon last year. It may be that there are no possible chances of our mining economically pitch blend and uranium in this country, but I should like to know to what extent we have made a survey and whether there is any possibility of our cutting down initial expenditure in that direction.

There are many other questions that could be asked. I do not want to delay the hon. Gentleman's reply, but I should like to finish by asking a few more questions. If it so happens that he is unable to furnish me with all the replies tonight. I shall be obliged if he will forward them to me later. Why can we not have a statement by the Government on the progress which has been made to put safely into effect the Wigner release? Are the Government completely satisfied that another Windscale accident could not happen again? When that operation was taking place, there was doubt whether the instruments were working correctly. Are the Government satisfied that the Wigner release can be operated quite safely in all our future atomic energy power stations?

Is it too premature to ask whether another revolutionary project, equally as fantastic as Zeta—that is, the direct conversion system of the power from a future thermonuclear power station, without the conventional orthodox steam-raising and turbines—is making progress? This project, I understand, is rather "in the air". I should like to know to what extent the Government can release any information and whether this system will be incorporated in the first thermonuclear power station.

Are we satisfied also that our method of forever neutralising waste fission products from the atomic power stations and experimental reactors by dumping them in the Irish Sea, and also storing them in canisters, is the best possible method? This has been causing me concern. I have tried by devious means, particularly by questioning the Prime Minister, to find out to what extent this system is proving effective and safe and whether we can rely on it for all future occasions. Particularly having in mind that we shall have many atomic power stations built in the comparatively near future and that the dumping of waste fission products will be an increasing and growing problem, I should like to know that the Government are quite satisfied that the methods adopted are safe.

What are the Government doing to stop the drift of some of our best scientific brains to the United States? Is it not a fact that the top 5 per cent. of our scientists and atomic engineers are going over to America on scholarships and that 40 per cent. of them are being "creamed off" by the Americans once they have got them there? The Government must apply their minds to this most vexing problem.

I should like the Parliamentary Secretary to tell me what inducements we can offer to our scientists and atomic engineers to keep them in this country, even if they do accept a scholarship, so that they might be induced to come back again. We really are short of information. I have raised this subject tonight, requesting more information concerning the research into and the development of the peaceful application of atomic energy, in the hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to give me and the House as much information as possible.

10.25 p.m.

Mr. Paul Williams (Sunderland, South)

I am aware of the need for speed in the debate, and also for the need for security in these matters, but I should like to support many of the remarks which have been made by the hon. Member for Barnsley (Mr. Mason), more especially because of the method of disclosure of the way in which we are handling our nuclear propulsion methods for merchant vessels in this country.

I do not want to go over ground which was covered in the debate on the Navy Estimates, but it seemed extremely haphazard that it was during that debate, and after an intervention by the Civil Lord of the Admiralty, that we discovered that our researches are one year ahead of those of the Americans.

There is terrific propaganda in this matter if it is true. I intervene in the debate very quickly only to ask the Government that when they have matters of this importance to declare in the future they should give rather more consideration to the propaganda value of the discoveries made, and that more importance should be attached to the public relations and propaganda side of this business.

10.26 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Power (Sir Ian Horobin)

I can only speak very rapidly on a great number of points, which would justify a very long debate. In reply to the intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. P. Williams), I do not think I can usefully do more than say at the moment that I will take note of the hopes he has expressed. As to the numerous points put to me by the hon. Member for Barnsley (Mr. Mason), I will take them in reverse order, because I can only give a sentence or so to about half—a—dozen of them.

On the question of the drift to the United States of our top scientists, we cannot, of course, put an iron curtain round this country, but I think that so far the proof of the pudding or of the plasma, as the case may be, is in the eating or the heating, and we seem to have a pretty good team left. I do not think that this is a very urgent problem at present, from such inquiries as I have been able to make on that very point at Harwell from time to time.

The storage and disposal of atomic waste is one of the great troubles, but so far it—is not a major difficulty. The present system of allowing the early decay to proceed and concentrate has not faced the Authority with any insuperable difficulties, but it is something that we shall have to go on to consider as quantities increase. As to the possible direct conversion to electricity from Zeta, the hon. Member for Barnsley is looking a very long way ahead. In theory, the plasma could be used directly for conversion, but that is a long way ahead and I do not think that at the moment it is a practical consideration.

As to the Wigner release, we know a great deal more than we knew at the time of the Windscale occurrence, and whilst one cannot give a categorical assurance in this extraordinarily difficult field, we can at least take some reassurance from the fact that all the tendency is to higher temperatures in the reactor and, as long as we have the graphite-moderated reactors, the higher the temperature the greater the annealing that is done as the process goes on. I am afraid that I have to speak in the most awful shorthand, but I hope that I make myself clear.

The prospects of finding uranium in the United Kingdom are extremely slight. Broadly speaking, the same thing would apply to Japan as applies to the processing of the elements from Italy, because, in any case, neither of those two countries have any facilities for doing it. Therefore, they must go somewhere to have it done, and I think that we can take it that in both cases they will come here.

On the question of whether our scientists are stunted by restrictions, as the hon. Member for Barnsley put it, and whether the staff is sufficient, one of course is never completely satisfied. We can say that there is every evidence in this country that some of the stultifying restrictions of so-called security which have caused a good deal of difficulty—and I put it no higher—in some other countries do not appear to have arisen in this country. I think that we have had a more sensible and moderate approach.

On the question of links with industry and farming out of experimental work, I can think of three large firms which took part in the construction of Zeta. Considerable arrangements are made for allowing firms and undertakings of various kinds to make themselves acquainted with the processes. For instance, the whole basis in the case of the consortia which are building the electricity generating stations is that by various arrangements they are given the opportunity of informing themselves through the Atomic Energy Authority. I think it is fair to say that the relation in this country between A.E.A. and private enterprise certainly shows that we have no reason to believe that we have not found a happier and more practical arrangement for a partnership between the Authority—in this country the A.E.A. corresponds to the American Commission —and industry, than others.

With regard to air cooled condensers, I am advised that considerable progress is being made in connection with conventional stations. There are great economic difficulties, but it is thought that there may be sufficient set-off in the saving in fuel transport costs by being able to put the stations nearer to the coal, whereas it might not be possible in the ordinary way because there is not sufficient water, but It is quite uncertain whether those will cancel out.

In the case of atomic stations, the amount of water involved is enormously greater and, therefore, the chances of it being an economic proposition are extremely slight at the moment; but, at any rate, progress in the actual design and development of such cooling methods is well advanced, and if it can be proved to be satisfactory in a conventional station, then conceivably at some future date it might be worth consideration in connection with atomic stations.

In the few minutes which remain to me, I should like, having run rapidly over a number of points, to go into the extremely important question of the arrangements made in connection with Zeta and the possibility of Government statements. We must separate two points -—first the declassification point, and then the question of what and what kind of Government statements in this field can or should be made. I cannot accept, even as quoted by the hon. Member, some of the newspaper accounts of what is alleged to have happened. On the declassification point, we must be clear that this is and must be primarily the responsibility of the A.E.A. who alone have the knowledge to say what is or may be of security importance and what is not.

I know the hon. Gentleman follows these matters very closely, and I think he will agree that a lot of what is published is not light reading. When it comes to deciding what may have military or security considerations, only the A.E.A. can decide. In this case, only the A.E.A. and the United States were concerned, because no thermo-nuclear work is being done in Canada.?

In this case, the declassification took place just before Christmas. The work had been done at Harwell in the summer. At no time, I am advised, did the A.E.A. —as theoretically, no doubt, they might have had to do—call for any diplomatic or Government assistance in their routine discussions which took place with the Americans as to what should be declassified and when. I really think that if there is one authority in the country which is entitled to say that it has earned the right to decide these technical matters and for other people to have some confidence in their judgment, that is the A.E.A.

During those months discussions took place. Whether the A.E.A. felt they might have occurred earlier, or that declassification might have taken place earlier or not, or whether more might have been declassified, that is entirely the responsibility of the A.E.A., and at no time was there any question of the Government either being called in to assist them or holding them back or interfering in any way.

When declassification took place just before Christmas, it was only a matter of weeks before Harwell made the very elaborate and successful arrangements for taking people down there. There was a Press conference and photographs of Zeta, and so on. The story was given, and it achieved, I think, a major amount of well-justified publicity. I do not think that anything was lost in that way. The whole thing was handled very well.

But, in any case, the responsibility for all that rests on the A.E.A., and I think, as I say, that the Authority is entitled to ask for the confidence of this House and of the country in its decision as to what should be declassified and when.

We then come to the question of the Government's statement which took place in the middle of November before declassification had taken place. The actual work, in substance, convinced "Harwell that it had succeeded". Perhaps "convinced" is too strong a word to use. Let us say that the actual work 90 per cent. convinced Harwell that it had succeeded in producing some of the neutrons which were undoubtedly being emitted by Zeta by thermonuclear processes.

In response to a Question in the middle of November the Government made a statement in general terms to that effect. It was quite impossible—I submit it would be very undesirable—for the Government, in this House, to endeavour to go further into what is an extremely technical matter.

Might I just dray/the attention of the hon. Member and of the House to just the sort of thing which appears annually in the Report of the Atomic Energy Authority? I have just marked a passage. almost at random, to show the kind of thing I have in mind. It states: It is well known that research in nuclear physics requires machines capable of accelerating charged particles over a very wide range of energies, from a few hundred keV to thousands of MeV. The hon. Gentleman no doubt appreciates the significance of these figures, but I very much doubt whether the majority of hon. Members would have the slightest knowledge of what the Authority was talking about, and that sort of thing goes on for pages in the Report—those who follow this sort of thing appreciate that. But for the Government to try to invade a field of this kind and make periodic statements on the subject instead of leaving it to the A.E.A. to do so in its Report would, I submit, be very unsatisfactory.

Just occasionally, and Zeta was one of them, the proper occasion arises when, after Parliament comes back, as it did in this case in October, a statement in general terms might be made. But I submit that it would be very undesirable for the House to attempt from time to time in a kind of race between, say, us and the Americans or between us and the Russians to embark on statements from this Box on very technical matters.

Such statements are far better left to the Authority which, I suggest, has, and certainly ought to have, the confidence of everybody in the country not only that it is doing its work extremely well and will probably do what has to be done quicker and better than other people, but that it can be trusted to do it in the proper way and at the proper time.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-one minutes to Eleven o'clock.