HC Deb 01 July 1959 vol 608 cc534-49
Mr. Maudling

I beg to move, in page 2, line 3, at the end, to insert:

shall be entitled to make plutonium and similar highly dangerous substances. That is in line with what the Opposition had in mind.

6.45 p.m.

An exception is made where a permit has been given in writing by the Atomic Energy Authority or a Government Department to somebody for purposes of research or development. We felt that it would be wrong to restrict research and development in these matters. An immense amount of research and development work is done outside Government establishments and it is for the general good that that should continue. It would be a great pity if it should be inhibited by reason of the fact that certain possibly small quantities of fissile materials should be extracted or created in the course of that research or development.

As the House will see, however, there is the further proviso that any fissile material whatsoever which is produced under such a permit shall be disposed of only in such manner as may be approved by the authority by whom the permit was granted.

In other words, if in the course of research and development a private body made some of this substance, it would not be able to do with it anything other than the Government Department or the Atomic Energy Authority says may be done with it.

This proposal gives complete control over these highly dangerous substances without at the same time inhibiting, which I think would be wrong, research and development into these highly important matters for our economy. I hope that we have succeeded in covering the point that was made earlier and in carrying out the undertaking which I gave. I trust, therefore, that the Amendment will be accepted by the House.

Sir F. Soskice

I beg to move, as an Amendment to the proposed Amendment, to leave out lines 8 to 12.

Our Amendment would have the effect of leaving out from the Government Amendment those portions of it which enable licences or permits to be issued to private undertakings for the purpose of research and development with plutonium. At the outset, it would be churlish of me if I did not recognise fully that the Government have gone a long way to meet our desires in this matter. Obviously, they have given a lot of thought to it and in their Amendment they have gone, I am not quite sure whether the whole way, but at least very far to meeting what we had in mind. The purpose of our Amendment is to explore the question of whether the Government by their Amendment have gone quite far enough. As I repeat, I acknowledge and thank the Government for having gone a long way.

When we discussed this matter in Standing Committee, there was an Amendment in the names of several of my hon. Friends and myself suggesting that the plutonium should only be extracted either by public authorities or by approved research organisations. The Paymaster-General may say that in seeking to leave out from the Government Amendment the words which permit licensing, we are being rather inconsistent and, perhaps, going back upon the earlier Amendment which we ourselves proposed. If we have to plead guilty to that charge, may we say, in extenuation, that it is because we are dealing with something which is so vast in its potentialities and so full of possible dangers that perhaps if we err on the side of extreme caution it is a virtue and not a vice.

Therefore, in putting down this Amendment we seek to explore the situation which may develop in the future if this licensing system is to be permitted. We are dealing with the very heart and kernel of the Bill. We are dealing with this highly dangerous matter, plutonium, and with the particular sort of uranium which is referred to in the Amendment. To say that that is like handling dynamite is obviously very much of an understatement. It is much more dangerous than dynamite. Therefore, I am sure that it will be agreed on both sides of the House that whether the Government are right or whether we are right in the doubts expressed, it is proper that we should go into this matter fully and see that we have drawn the line in the right place so far as human foresight can ensure.

The Government Amendment would permit the Atomic Energy Authority, in the first place, to license private undertakings to extract from the enriched material the very matter out of which atomic weapons can be constructed. The commonsense answer may be advanced by the right hon. Gentleman that it is highly unlikely that any private undertaking would be able or would have the desire to construct an atomic or hydrogen bomb. That one readly recognises as common sense. At the same time, we pose the question by our Amendment whether it really should be possible at all for any private undertaking to handle this material, to engage upon the process which results in the production of this material from the enriched product.

I would like the right hon. Gentleman or the Parliamentary Secretary to tell us the sort of private undertakings which might want, and might be licensed, to extract the plutonium—in other words, to have in their possession so that they could use it, the very matter out of which atomic weapons are constructed. We are talking about the actual matter and not about any of the preparatory processes. We are talking about the extraction from the enriched material of that very substance which goes to make up nuclear weapons. We therefore ask: is it desirable or necessary that in any circumstances that should be done by a private concern?

I recognise at once that the Government Amendment goes a great way to hedge round the liberty of action of any concern other than the Authority. In terms it provides that any fissile material produced under such a permit shall be disposed of only in such manner as may be approved by the Authority by whom the permit was granted. Theoretically, at any rate, and within the terms of that language, I suppose that means that the ownership of the fissile material produced might be permitted under a licence to pass into private hands. I think it will be agreed that that is what the language allows.

I ask, in what circumstances could it be in the public interest that that situation should emerge? In what circumstances is it necessary for a private undertaking to become the owner of, as distinct from being given a limited right to use, the fissile material? If a strong case cannot be made out showing that it is in certain circumstances essential that private concerns should become possessed and become the proprietors of that material, is there not a strong case for saying that there should not even exist a power to enable them to acquire the ownership of it?

I do not want to throw out any fanciful examples of black market operations in this sort of material. Obviously, that would be unreal. There is nothing to consider or answer on that sort of hypothesis. But short of that, as we are dealing with this deadly dangerous stuff, should we not erect every sort of hedge to prevent the least possibility of danger, unless there is a strong case for saying that in some circumstances, which we think should be indicated by the Government, it should be enabled to pass out of the ownership of the State in the form of the Atomic Energy Authority?

Therefore, it is, as I say, with a view to probing and eliciting more informa- tion from the Government in this vital sphere of our future that we put down this Amendment which, in terms and as a matter of language, seeks to leave out the whole of the provisions relating to licensing. If a strong case can be made for the necessity of licensing, I concede that our Amendment must go too far, but a strong case should be made out. We think that the Government should be able to satisfy the House, before their Amendment is accepted, that it is essential that in certain circumstances this quintessence of danger, the extracted plutonium, should be allowed outside the custody of a public body. It should be shown beyond a peradventure. I think that the right hon. Gentleman and the Parliamentary Secretary agree with me in that proposition. We are dealing with something so vitally dangerous that unless it is essential that it should be in some hands other than public hands, there should be no power in any authority to enable that possible hypothetical situation ever to eventuate.

We put down this Amendment in case the Government spokesman may be able to satisfy us that we have gone too far. We shall listen expectantly to the reply. If I may put it in short compass, the point that I make is this. The Government Amendment—and we are grateful to the Government for having given careful consideration to our anxieties—enables licensing to take place under which private firms can extract this material. It also enables permission to be given for the ownership of this material, in addition to its use, to pass from public hands into private hands. If that is to be allowed under our system of law, we submit that the strongest reasons of utility and practical necessity must be shown to exist.

The case for this Opposition Amendment can be put in the form of a question: can those grounds be established? If they can, we should like to hear them. We would then be able to determine our attitude. Our Amendment is exploratory in character and we should like a full answer to our question.

Mr. Peart

We approached this very important subject in Committee not in any doctrinaire spirit and, therefore, I am pleased that the Government have moved this Amendment, because there is no doubt that it is accepted on both sides of the House that the responsibility for the production of plutonium and enriched uranium must be with the State. Indeed, in reply to a question which I put to the Parliamentary Secretary in Committee, that fact was emphasised and it has been emphasised over and over again. We therefore accept that.

I recognise that there is force in the Government Amendment and that the Minister has gone a long way to meet the points I raised in Committee. Inevitably, if we are to have important scientific research carried on in the use of plutonium and enriched uranium, it will be necessary for firms in the consortia and, indeed, firms outside the consortia, in certain circumstances and with proper safeguards, to do research in this subject. Obviously, if we are to accelerate the development of gas diffusion plants in this country, we must have much more research into enriched uranium. I am certain, therefore, that, in that sense, the Government's Amendment meets that kind of case. Neither my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Newport (Sir F. Soskice) nor any of my hon. Friends wish in any way to impede that work.

7.0 p.m.

Only this morning I had the pleasure of seeing, in the course of construction, a reactor which is to be built by the Hawker-Siddeley Nuclear Power Company, one of the Hawker-Siddeley Group. Obviously, a body of that kind, doing important research not only for the Hawker-Siddeley Group, but also for the Atomic Energy Authority, should, in certain circumstances, have made available to it from the Atomic Energy Authority a supply of plutonium or a supply of enriched uranium.

No one on this side of the House wishes to be doctrinaire about this matter. As I said in Committee—I stress it again—this is a partnership. It is a strong partnership which must go on. None the less, I am concerned about the question of ownership. I feel that the words of the Government Amendment are too vague. I hope that an answer will be given to my right hon. and learned Friend's question on the legal point. Line 10 of the Government's Amendment deals with the disposal of any fissile material. Does disposal mean a change of ownership? Do the Government visualise that there may be a change of ownership of material which had been lent to a consortium or to a private concern? I am certain that each one of us on this side wants an assurance about this.

We are dealing here with material which can be used for the peaceful production of atomic energy but which, also, affects our defence programme. We are anxious to have safeguards about ownership, but in no way do we wish to restrict research. I have said again and again that we cannot be doctrinaire about it. There must be this partnership between private industry and the Atomic Energy Authority acting as the agent of the Government. In certain circumstances, I can imagine that fissile material such as that mentioned in the Amendment could be used fruitfully by an organisation doing important research even though that organisation is a private one.

I hope that we shall have further assurances about ownership. I shall not labour the point. The Government have gone a long way to meet our view, and there has been broad agreement that the State must have responsibility, with a proper licensing system. If that is in operation, I am sure that it will work well. But we must have a specific answer on the question of ownership, particularly as regards what is referred to in line 10 of the Government's Amendment.

Mr. D. Price

As the House knows, I have some very modest experience in these matters, and it might be for the convenience of the House, in assisting it to make up its mind, if I were to explain one or two points.

In my view, the case for resisting the Opposition Amendment is strong. The hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Peart) has already given the main reason why it is right that the Atomic Energy Authority should, in proper conditions, permit private organisations to have uranium and plutonium. There is not only the obviously important matter of research in nuclear physics, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, but also the very important work done by many establishments on canning materials, alloys, ceramics and various forms of insulation, linings for canning materials, and so on.

In Standing Committee, I declared a personal interest in the matter of beryllium, on which my own company works. It is not really possible to do experimental and development work on a new canning material for fissile raw material which one wishes to put into a reactor without having some of the actual fissile material to work with. There is a further legal difficulty to which I wish to draw the attention of the right hon. and learned Member for Newport (Sir F. Soskice). One of the unfortunate features of this kind of work is that one is really applying the Einstein formula, converting mass into energy. One may start with a quantity of U 235, but, during the course of work, one may disperse some of it or convert it into other chemical forms. Therefore, all one has left is the decayed material which will go back to the Authority. I can well imagine very complicated legal arguments about the ownership of the part one has turned into energy. I will not labour the point, but it does add a complication.

My next remark will, I hope, allay certain fears expressed by the right hon. and learned Gentleman. Uranium and plutonium, as he says, are associated with nuclear weapons and, of course, this must be in the back of all our minds. Nevertheless, I do not think that we should be too alarmed, provided that there is a reasonable system of licensing and permits as proposed in my right hon. Friend's Amendment. To illustrate what I mean, I will remind the House about the uses to which the element nitrogen is put. Thinking in terms of armaments, one's mind immediately goes to nitro-glycerine. On the other hand, although nitrogen can be used in making nitro-glycerine, one does not say that no private company shall work with the chemical nitrogen. If one said that, there would be no nitrogenous fertilisers. That simple analogy of the chemical nitrogen, which is familiar to most hon. Members, can be applied in exactly the same terms to the elements uranium and plutonium.

I ask the right hon. and learned Gentleman to remember that in this whole new field of work there are, of course, risks that these things may be used for hostile purposes—it is the job of society to ensure that they are not—but that does not mean that they have not also a perfectly good use for the benefit of mankind. Stones may be used for building houses or for throwing at people. We should have the same approach to plutonium and uranium.

Mr. Mason

The Government's Amendment goes a long way to meet my point of view. I expressed a very definite point of view in Committee about the possibility of plutonium and enriched uranium passing out of the hands of the State. I hope that we shall have from the Government further elaboration particularly in regard to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Peart) with reference to line 10 in the Amendment which deals with disposal. Will the material go back to the State or not?

The right hon. Gentleman will remember that, in Committee, I said that we visualised a State plutonium bank, the idea being that, at all times, plutonium and enriched uranium after extraction during normal nuclear energy processes should be processed by and kept in the hands of the State. We therefore visualised that this very dangerous material would always be kept in the hands of the State and farmed out only under control and direction so that we at no time lost sight of it.

The Governent's Amendment goes a long way to meet that point, but I am a little hazy about the last part of it. If the Government can assure us that at all times this extremely dangerous material plutonium and enriched uranium, will be kept in the hands of the State, that will go some way to meeting us. There is also the question of ownership of these materials used in a private reactor, perhaps by a member of the consortia or by a university establishment such as the Imperial College of Science and Technology, which may, in its normal processing and the running of its reactors, produce enriched uranium and, eventually, plutonium. If we can be assured that the material will be chemically processed by the State and kept in the hands of the State, that will go a long way to meet our point.

Every time we export a nuclear reactor—the arrangements with Italy and Japan are examples—it is arranged that the nuclear fuels are brought back to this country so that they can be chemically processed. Control of them is not lost and they do not pass into other hands. If the right hon. Gentleman can assure us that we shall, in fact, have a plutonium bank, the material being in the hands of the State and, at all times, kept under our control and direction, that will go a long way to meet my misgivings.

Mr. Harold Davies

I agree with some of the points made by my hon. Friends, but I do not think that the analogy of the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mr. D. Price), with all respect to his scientific knowledge, between nitrogen and nitroglycerine and plutonium and uranium 235 fits. There are two questions which we should ask about the movement of this enriched material. If this material goes into private ownership for research—and there is a case for research in private ownership—will we have safety regulations and provisions for insurance and compensation? The Committee has not considered this point. Such provision will be neded for scientific research under the drive of private enterprise or for university work.

I should not like the Bill to go through in its present form, It is very loose. When this material is used in a university for smaller experiments, is that covered by the Bill? Perhaps the Minister will clear up that point. It is important that the public should know that we have considered these points.

Another point about which I am concerned is this. This material will get cheaper. There is an interesting comparison between investment in the coal mines and investment in atomic energy. We were told that investment in the coal mining industry between 1945 and 1965 will amount to £2,000 million and that investment in atomic energy will amount to £3,350 million by 1965. When one invests in the mines, the older the mine gets the further one has to go from the shaft and a greater investment may be needed to win the coal, but the fascinating thing about this great discovery of mankind is that it will become cheaper. This may be a blessing to mankind. Ultimately, private firms of the smallest type may be able to experiment in this material twenty years from now because it will be so cheap and they may produce something that is worth while. Are we clear as to how this matter will be moved into private hands for experiment? I should like the Minister to consider this point.

We have spoken at great length about this subject, but I think that those points were worth making at this stage because they are points to which I think the Minister should apply his mind.

Mr. Maudling

I can confirm that the point made by the hon. Member for Leek (Mr. Harold Davies) is covered by the first Clause of the Bill.

The right hon. and learned Member for Newport (Sir F. Soskice) was quite right in saying that the process of making fissile material, either by extraction from irradiated material or by enriching natural uranium, is extremely costly and complicated, and it is highly unlikely that in practice private undertakings would embark on manufacturing fissile material on an industrial scale. However, the Opposition have made the point, and we have accepted it, that, although this is unlikely, it is not impossible and, therefore, it should be made illegal by Statute. That is the purpose of the Government's Amendment.

As I have said, the point is that the Amendment would, in fact, prohibit in any circumstances the manufacture of plutonium or the enrichment of uranium by a private firm on an industrial scale—not even with a permit or licence. Manufacture on an industrial scale is out under the Government Amendment. The only thing that would be permitted, subject to a permit, would be, for example, the incidental production of plutonium, which would be in small quantities as incidental to a process of research and development. It is true that that involves risks, but we must consider both sides of the question.

7.15 p.m.

I have been advised by the Atomic Energy Authority that if we were to accept the Opposition's Amendment and not make it possible for permits to be given for research and development the Authority itself would be considerably hampered because it would be prevented from placing with outside bodies certain research jobs which it cannot do itself. I am also advised that a good deal of university research would be seriously hampered if the provision did not exist. I am sure that the House will accept that and that we are at one in wishing that research should not be hampered but should be fully controlled.

The method which we have chosen, I think, is more practical than proceeding by reference to the ownership of the material. I suppose that there are many sources from which these highly dangerous substances can be produced, although some of them are perfectly safe in themselves, like natural uranium, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mr. D. Price) referred. The important thing, therefore, is not the ownership but that we should have regard to the point at which something that is highly dangerous is created or made, and ensure that no one outside the Authority and Government Departments shall have the right to make these highly dangerous substances save under a permit issued by the Authority. The safeguard would be that that permit would specify what use shall be made of the fissile material once it has been produced. The word "disposal", I take it, would cover sale back to the Authority, but I imagine that possibly it might be desirable for some of this material to be made available to the Electricity Generating Board later. What is clear is that the Authority or the Government Department, whichever it may be, has complete control over this dangerous substance from the moment that it is created.

I am sure that in practice both the Authority and any Government Department would not give a permit unless they were fully satisfied that the material concerned—the plutonium or whatever it is—will be just as safe in the hands of a university or research department as in the hands of a Government Department or the Atomic Energy Authority. Everyone knows how dangerous this material is. We can take it for certain that the Authority and Government Departments would take that precaution before issuing a permit.

I hope that I have been able to persuade right hon. and hon. Members opposite that our proposal is the best way to achieve the common object. It makes provision for proper research and development. It recognises that as an incidental of research and development quantities of plutonium may be created. If that happens, however, it can be done only under a permit, and subsequent use or disposal of any such material will be entirely under the control either of the Atomic Energy Authority or a Government Department. I hope that I have persuaded hon. Members opposite that that is the fact.

Mr. Robens

What the right hon. Gentleman has said is very satisfactory to us on this side of the House. This was a matter which engendered a good deal of heat in Committee. We spent a lot of time on this point and at one stage it came back to the House. However, time has passed and we have forgotten the difficulties which lay between us.

We are happy that the Paymaster-General and the Parliamentary Secretary have been able to produce these words which I think adequately meet the fears which were expressed. There is always the difficulty in dealing with a Bill of this kind that we are trying to safeguard for unknown hazards and difficulties, and in drawing attention in Committee to the dangers which would arise if it were possible for private enterprise to produce plutonium I think that we on this side were only doing our proper duty.

What the Paymaster-General has said is, of course, perfectly correct. It is a very expensive process. Because of the tremendous cost and the work involved, it is hardly likely that anyone would enter this field, but we do not know exactly what work will be involved and what the cost will be in ten, fifteen or twenty years' time. Therefore, in producing these words, the Paymaster-General has covered beyond a shadow of doubt the difficulty that faced us at one time of preventing the actual extraction of plutonium, and its manufacture, being placed in the hands of private individuals.

We go with the right hon. Gentleman on the necessity of private enterprise in its research programmes, needing access to these materials, and to use them, but I was more than delighted to hear what the right hon. Gentleman said about the disposal of these products. Our Amendment to the proposed Amendment was, of course, intended to focus attention on this aspect. It was not designed in any way to do more than elicit the kind of exchange we have had, and I am very glad indeed that our action has produced such an excellent statement from the Paymaster-General which, I am sure, satisfies my right hon and hon. Friends as it satisfies me.

I am grateful, because of what took place in the Standing Committee. I am conscious that tempers sometimes get frayed—mine probably gets heated more quickly than others—and certain hard words passed between us. Nevertheless, the fact that there has emerged such a useful and profitable debate perhaps justified what took place then. I want, once again, to say that we appreciate the work of the Parliamentary Secretary and the Paymaster-General in dealing with this matter in this way, and I have no doubt that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Newport (Sir F. Soskice) will seek the leave of the House to withdraw our Amendment and so enable us to accept the Paymaster-General's proposed Amendment.

Sir F. Soskice

In view of the answer we have had, Mr. Speaker, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment to the proposed Amendment.

Amendment to the proposed Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Proposed words there inserted in the Bill.

Sir I. Horobin

I beg to move, in page 2, line 9, to leave out from "Minister" to end of line 12 and to insert: by instrument in writing— (a) shall on granting the licence, and may from time to time thereafter, attach to the licence such conditions as may appear to the Minister to be necessary or desirable in the interests of safety, whether in normal circumstances or in the event of any accident or other emergency on the site, which conditions may in particular include provision—". I do not think that this Amendment need take us long. It is put down to meet a wish expressed by the Opposition that the Minister should have a duty, and not merely a power, to attach appropriate safety conditions to a licence. This seemed to us to be a very reasonable point, and we were glad to accede to it.

Mr. Palmer

I understand that these words have been framed in order to meet points raised in Committee, once again, by the Opposition. We are, therefore, grateful to the Government.

Amendment agreed to.

Sir I. Horobin

I beg to move, in page 2, line 21, at the end to insert: (iii) with respect to preparations for dealing with, and measures to be taken on the happe- ning of, any accident or other emergency on the site".

This Amendment, again, has been tabled to cover a very useful point, if I may say so, made in Committee; that safety conditions should cover not only the normal operation of the installation but also the arrangements to meet an emergency, and the proper action to be taken in the case of evacuation and so on.

Mr. Palmer

I believe that I was responsible for raising this matter in Committee. I then made a fairly long speech. I am now happy to make an extremely short one, and to welcome an Amendment put down in response, once again, to the Opposition's representations.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. Maudling

I beg to move, in page 2, line 25, after (b) to insert: may at any time attach to the licence such conditions as the Minister may think fit with respect to the handling, treatment and disposal of any nuclear fuel which becomes irradiated in the course of its use at the site; and the Minister may at any time by a further instrument in writing".

This Amendment is consequential on the Amendment we have just been discussing about the treatment of plutonium.

Amendment agreed to.

Sir I. Horobin

I beg to move, in page 3, line 2, to leave out "who" and to insert "which".

This small Amendment has been tabled as a matter of clarification. It turned out that the Bill, as it left the Committee, might be read as meaning that all these extraordinarily complicated and sometimes very technical conditions would have to be posted en bloc everywhere. That, obviously, would be absurd and, in practice, would probably mean that nobody would obey any of them. By making this small change we are, in effect, ensuring that each of the conditions shall be available somewhere, but that the particular Regulations affecting someone's duty in some part of the site can, on the decision of the Inspector, be separated quite clearly so that the man who has to do something under them can see exactly what he is responsible for doing, and not have that duty mixed up with a whole lot of other things which could only cause confusion.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. Maudling

I beg to move, in page 3, line 4, after "(1)", to insert "subsection (1A)".

This Amendment, again, is consequential on that dealing with the treatment of plutonium.

Amendment agreed to.