HC Deb 26 March 1959 vol 602 cc1578-96

2.58 p.m.

Mrs. Joyce Butler (Wood Green)

This is a complicated subject both because it is highly technical and also because there are a number of lines of approach to it. Therefore, partly for that reason, and partly because I think a special case can be made for regarding the London area as a separate entity. I shall confine what I have to say largely to the problem of radioactivity in Greater London.

There appear to be two main sources of danger from radioactivity. The first is the one most in the public eye, the danger of fall-out following nuclear tests. These produce quantities of strontium 90 which descend in rain from the upper atmosphere. It has been stated by scientific correspondents recently—there was a report in the Observer a few days ago—that from all over Europe there have been increases of 200 per cent. to 400 per cent. in the average level of radioactivity in air and water, a large part of which must emanate from this radioactive fallout resulting from nuclear tests.

In the last few days also we have been informed that the time of residence of strontium 90 in the upper atmosphere is not so long as was previously thought. It is now considered that its half-life is two years, and not seven as was previously estimated. This has caused a great deal of public concern, as also has the fact that a number of other assumptions on which we based our estimate of the danger from this radioactive fall-out appear to have been challenged.

There is the question not only of the rate of fall-out of strontium 90 from the stratosphere, but the uniformity of its distribution. The United Nations experts reported in 1958 that, so far from being uniform, the density in the northern hemisphere is two to three times as great as in the southern hemisphere, which is something that could be very significant when we are trying to assess the radioactive content of imported food.

The third point which I wish to emphasise in this connection relates to the difficulty of forecasting the power released from nuclear tests. The official estimate of the Eniwetok test in 1952 was that it was expected to release one megaton, whereas it actually released five megatons. A test on 1st March, 1954, was expected to release two megatons, but released 14 megatons, and on 27th March, 1954, a test expected to release three megatons actually released 17 megatons. I stress these variations which have appeared in the forecasts merely to show that we cannot be certain about such estimates and therefore we must be extremely cautious in everything we do to protect ourselves against radioactivity.

The situation is so uncertain, so little is known about it, that we must make quite sure that we are taking every possible precaution to protect ourselves against such variations. From the evidence, it would seem that we are not at present concerning ourselves nearly enough nationally with the monitoring of imported foods. We are concentrating on home-produced food and on the areas where it is produced. We are not, as I understand it, monitoring imported food to any extent, with the exception of imported flour.

The second angle from which I approach this problem of radioactivity is what I might call the peace-time uses of radioactive material. I do not think I can do beter than to quote what the medical officer of health in my constituency has to say about this. He summarises the dangers in a locality, which could be important from the point of view of public health, as the presence of a nuclear power station in or within a few miles of any area which, presumably, would constitute a potential danger, always assuming that things go wrong. Then there is the danger of radioactive wastes which may be discharged into any water course running through an area either to a greater or a lesser degree. Radioactive waste can also be discharged into drains and therefore into sewers.

Apart from the normal amount of radioactivity in the air there is a possibility of an increase following a disaster at an atomic plant—for example, the disaster at the Windscale plant, which caused a great deal of concern to medical authorities in the Greater London area just after it occurred. Following any mishap which involves radioactive material there is the danger of contamina- tion of buildings, roadways, individuals or foodstuffs. That is his estimate of the possible problem which he, as medical officer, might have to face at any particular time.

With regard to the problem of radioactive waste, there are strict regulations for hospitals, which produce a very large proportion of it. It has been estimated that the sum-total of hospitals using unsealed radioactivity may contribute more radioactivity to effluent than Harwell. This is quite a serious problem. Many local authorities have hospitals within their boundaries but they know very little about the amount of radioactive waste that is being discharged or what is happening to it when it has been discharged.

I am confining what I have to say mainly to London because London is a special problem. It represents the greatest concentration of population in the United Kingdom, there being about 10 million people living in the Greater London area. This is a much higher density than in any other part of the United Kingdom. The risks, if there are any, are therefore greater in this concentrated area. The problem affects a number of different local authorities, not only the London County Council but the Middlesex, Kent, Surrey, Hertfordshire and Essex County Councils, and possibly a small part of one or two others, as well as the district councils concerned. The greater part of the food supply of the area comes from outside London, either from other parts of the country or from abroad. Anything that goes wrong in this area will obviously be very serious, when there is such a concentration of population, and will present a special problem.

Another factor concerning London deserves special consideration. It is the fact that most of the surface of the London area is covered with buildings, asphalt or cement, which are impermeable. When rain falls and brings down deposits of strontium 90, these deposits, instead of going into the soft two inches of top soil as they do in open country, tend to be concentrated in the drains and sewers, particularly the storm-water sewers. There may therefore be a very special problem with the sewers, and with radioactive waste and deposits of strontium 90 in the sewage.

It is difficult to find out anything about this, because very little seems to be known. I have spoken to public controllers, medical officers of health, local authority engineers and people in public works departments, and they know very little if anything, about it. This is another very special problem which deserves careful examination. Local authorities, and their medical officers of health in particular, are concerned with their own local people and not with national averages which may cover up local problems. They are concerned with the amounts and kinds of radioactive deposits in their own areas.

It is significant that in the Greater London area there is considerable concern about this problem. The London County Council keeps a check upon atmospheric pollution and it monitors for radioactivity in this respect. The Metropolitan Water Board has its own check, in addition to national checks on the water supply from the River Thames. I do not know what happens about radioactive waste lower down the river and in the Port of London. I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman can tell me, or if anyone knows, what is happening there.

One local authority not far from my constituency is so concerned about air pollution that, not content with the fact that the L.C.C. monitors for radioactivity coming from the air, it has, in setting up its own smoke control scheme, purchased a daily smoke and sulphur dioxide apparatus and two deposit gauges. When the pads collect impurities from the air it does a rough and ready monitoring itself with apparatus from the Civil Defence department. Not many local authorities do that, but it illustrates the concern which some public health authorities feel about this matter.

Middlesex County Council has gone on record as asking the Ministry of Housing and Local Government to make an effort to secure a co-ordinated policy among the various authorities to create a central information bureau on radiation levels in food, air and water which would supply information to local medical officers at three-monthly intervals. Also, it has asked that establishments using radioactive substances should be registered with the local authorities so that medical officers of health can know of them and give advice in the event of accident when there might be added risk of contamination through smoke or sewers. The Ministry of Housing and Local Government also recognised the interest of local authorities in the problem when recently it sent a circular to the Association of Municipal Corporations, which has gone to local authorities, drawing attention to what has been done in this respect. The general tenor of the Ministry's circular, however, is that it should be left on a national level and local authorities should not themselves engage in monitoring.

I wish to emphasise the point I made earlier that all this concern is due to the fact that so little is known and so little information is available, but it is recognised by responsible public servants that the essence of radiation hygiene is that it must be entirely preventive. This is an evil that cannot be seen, it cannot be touched, smelt or felt. If we do see the effects we have failed; that is the essence of the problem. We cannot let it reach the point at which we can see its effects, or we shall have to admit that we are beaten.

In this connection, I should point out that the United Nations Report last year showed beyond doubt that those members of the world population whose calcium intake is through rice rather than through milk are already cornmittted irrevocably to bone strontium which will exceed the level set by the Medical Research Council in its famous Report of 1956 as needing "immediate consideration" if approached. Rice-eating peoples have already reached six times as much bone strontium in their bones as we have in this country. That is the measure of the danger. If we get to that point we shall have failed to take the necessary preventive action which I am urging on the right hon. Gentleman that we should be considering today. Public Health Inspectors have a right to know when to expect excessive radioactive contamination, and how and what to sample. As public health inspectors, public health analysts should have a diversity of means at their disposal for sensitive radioactive analyses.

I should like to summarise what I want to ask the Minister. This is a problem for which local authorities, particularly the public health departments, have a responsibility. I should like the Minister, if he will, to examine it with the other Ministers who are concerned with it. The other Ministries involved are the Ministry of Health, whose interest is obvious, the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, from the local authority angle, the Ministry of Agriculture, from the point of view of the examination of food, the Ministry of Power, from the point of view of nuclear power establishments, the Ministry of Labour, from the point of view of factory inspection, the Home Office, which is concerned with police and fire-fighting radioactivity hazards. the Ministry of Education, which issues guidance on X-ray apparatus in schools and colleges, and the Prime Minister, who has overall responsibility. That list probably indicates that the time is approaching when there should be greater co-ordination of all this work, possibly under a Minister of State.

What I am asking the Minister to do today is to discuss with these Ministries the concern of local authorities and, possibly using London as a pilot scheme, to set up some joint board of local authorities, for example the food and drugs authorities, which would be the county councils, in liaison with the district councils, which are concerned with public health. I ask him to consider establishing some machinery whereby this London joint board can be responsible for the monitoring of food being brought into the area, for the monitoring of air, water and rainfall and for the examination of radioactive waste. I understand that the Minister of Housing and Local Government proposes shortly to discuss the question of radioactive waste with local authorities, and I hope that the Minister will bear this point in mind when he does so. There should be some machinery in the Greater London area established for local authorities who have to deal with this.

Secondly, I ask the Minister to urge the appropriate Ministry to supply medical officers of health with a list of all establishments in their area using radioactive material. In a reply on 23rd March, the Minister of Housing and Local Government said that his Department would give an appreciation of the extent to which radioactive materials are used in their areas to medical officers of health on request. There is no doubt that they should have a full list, whether they ask for it or not. They should be told of the establishments which are using these processes in their areas.

Thirdly, there should be a scheme of instruction for public health inspectors. The Atomic Energy Authority, I believe, has a committee which is reporting about training in this field, and it seems to me important that when it is considering training it should consider also the training of public health inspectors in order that they may know exactly what the problem is and how they have to deal with it in any emergency. It is also very important to build up a panel of health and safety specialists. There is a great shortage in this field—there are not enough people who know sufficient about this problem to be able to deal with it adequately.

I am afraid that I have taken rather a lot of time. There is a great deal more that I wanted to say, and I press the Minister to realise that what I have said is probably quite inadequate to represent the strong public feeling which exists on this problem and the belief, which is felt in particular by local authorities in this area, that they should be given a greater say in the control of this problem where it concerns their own people and their own areas.

3.20 p.m.

Dr. Edith Summerskill (Warrington)

May I have a few minutes in which to emphasise what my hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green (Mrs. Butler) has said? This is the most important debate that has been held in the House, and I am sorry that the benches are not better filled. It has been borne in upon us lately that scientists on whom this House is dependent, and who have to advise the various Ministers when answering Questions from both sides of the House, have lately been proved to be absolutely wrong. This is very important.

I am not asking the Minister to be controversial over this; I am just asking him to be receptive. I think that he would agree that we have treated Dr. Libby as an oracle on this matter. Dr. Libby, as my hon. Friend said, has recently been proved quite wrong in his prediction as to the fall-out of strontium. Dr. Libby is an important member of the Atomic Energy Commission. The whole of the United States of America and, indeed, the whole world listened to what he said about atomic energy: but he has been wrong.

The Argus project emphasises in a dramatic way that the Service chiefs in the United States will make tests without consultation with the scientists or the public health authorities. They say that their tests have been in the upper atmosphere and that the fall-out will not affect the earth's atmosphere. Already, several scientists have been proved wrong. Again, we are waiting to hear whether this is correct or not.

A few weeks ago we learned that a mistake had been made because Euratom said that the concentration in the earth's atmosphere by radioactivity is much greater than was anticipated. The time has come when the Government must not repeat what the scientists and militarists tell us after contamination by radioactivity has taken place. As my hon. Friend has said, we must adopt a preventive attitude. Our ignorance on this matter is abysmal. Each time a Question is put to the Government Front Bench the Answers, quite understandably, from the Minister downwards, are a little vague.

What we want to inject into the Minister is a sense of urgency. We want him to convey to those who can arrange this the opinion that this side of the House feels that there should be one Minister, who not only has the knowledge of the scientists but who will make it his particular job to interest himself in this important question of radioactivity.

The hon. Member who has the next Adjournment debate has not yet arrived, so perhaps we may devote a few more minutes to this subject. I hope that the Minister will not be impatient, because this is a matter which concerns him and his family as well as hon. Members and their families on this side of the House. This is a matter which concerns the whole world. It is not a party matter.

I emphasise this by one small illustration. The Minister may well say that he has heard most of the points which my hon. Friend made. I wonder whether he has heard this one. The day before yesterday, I myself would not have been able to make it. Yesterday I was on a train, sitting in my carriage, when I suddenly heard the words "radioactivity", and there was a slight altercation. I went to the guard's van, where I found an extremely nice guard saying to a porter, who had his arms clasping a large parcel, "I won't take it in". I said, "What is all this about?" The guard said, "It contains radioactivity. I am not going to have it here. I have been instructed not to have it here."

I felt like Alice in Wonderland. I thought "How can it be that we carry freight of this kind in the guard's van on a very crowded train." I said to the guard" How do you segregate this". He said, "With a piece of chalk, I draw around it in the van a white line, to a radius of four feet". I thought that this could not be, but I did not want to embarrass this excellent public servant by asking any more questions.

I got back to the House last night, made a few inquiries and read the regulations headed: Conveyance of Radio Active Material by Passenger or Parcels Train. Perhaps I may just quote the relevant items. They read: Packages to be segregated at least 4 ft. not only from undeveloped films but also from articles of luggage, Post Office bags, and other packages the contents of which are unknown in trains or on station premises. Particular care must be taken to ensure that this traffic is not placed within 4ft. of an adjacent passenger compartment: Again: In the majority of instances the most suitable arrangement will be to load the package in a corner of the train van at the buffer end. Where possible, a chalk line should be drawn on the floor indicating the required 4 ft. segregation. They go on: Owing to the possibility of dust on the floors of vehicles becoming slightly activated, the vehicle floor should be swept before radio active traffic is loaded. In so far as this was in London, it relates to what my hon. Friend has said. Yesterday, through that guard's van went passengers for two breakfasts, one coffee, two lunches—crowds passed through. Children went in to look out of the window. I looked on the floor, and saw a blur of chalk that no doubt related to yesterday's traffic. How were those people to know that with one foot on the chalk they were walking over the line? This is a quite incredible state of affairs.

I am not for one moment blaming the railway officials. They were observing the instructions absolutely. What I do say is that here is a danger that, as my hon. Friend has said, cannot be seen, cannot be understood but a danger, nevertheless, to which people are subject today. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will say, as so often we have heard him and his colleagues say to us, "There is only a little radioactivity connected with the parcel. There is only a little radioactivity from television. There is only a little radioactivity from your luminous watch. There is only a little radioactivity from the granite walls."

What the Paymaster-General must realise is that this is cumulative, and that people are now exposed to a danger of which they are ignorant. They are exposed as, in the days of Pasteur, they were exposed to the danger of germs. When Pasteur told the world that there are lethal germs in the air, some laughed, and for fifty years Pasteur was treated as a crank.

We are now exposed in the same way, and I repeat my hope that a responsible Minister will say to us that the time has now come when the House must be informed by a Minister who devotes his time to this problem, so that the people should be protected from this danger.

3.39 p.m.

The Paymaster-General (Mr. Reginald Maudling)

The hon. Lady the Member for Wood Green (Mrs. Butler) who has raised this important matter of the monitoring of radioactivity in the Greater London area obviously knows a great deal about the subject, and I fear that there will not be much that I can add to what she has said and to what has already been made known in Answers to Questions which she and other hon. Members have asked.

I will deal first with co-ordination within the Government. There is an official committee representing a very wide range of Departments. It is under the chairmanship of an official of the Atomic Energy Office, which Office, as the House will be aware, is the responsibility of the Prime Minister. The explanation of my answering this debate is that I have been acting, as it were, as a sort of Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister in this responsibility. Therefore, I think one can say that there is already a great deal of co-ordination in these matters. I accept from the start that the hon. Lady is right in saying that a tremendous num- ber of different interests are involved, and we will certainly do all we can to ensure that the co-ordination between different Departments is up to date and as full as possible.

In dealing with the question of radioactivity, I find myself at a disadvantage in facing the right hon. Lady the Member for Warrington (Dr. Summerskill) who has a great deal of medical and scientific knowledge which I cannot claim. As I understand it, the human race has always been subject to a great deal of radiation from its natural environment, both from cosmic rays and from radiation from buildings and rocks, and there is even some internal radiation in the human body. In addition, we appreciate the radiation hazards which arise from X-rays, but more recently we have had the new problem which arises from the deliberate use by mankind of the releasing of the energy of the atom, both for warlike and peaceful purposes, to which the hon. Lady the Member for Wood Green referred.

First, I should like to say a word or two about the peaceful uses of atomic energy. The hon. Lady referred to the possible danger from power stations. I agree that there is a theoretical danger that an accident in a power station may lead to the release of radioactive substances. That is one of the reasons why such stringent precautions are taken in the siting of power stations. As the hon. Lady mentioned the Windscale accident, perhaps I should emphasise once again that the design and construction of an atomic power station is very different from the Windscale establishment. For many technical reasons, which, as far as I recall, were set out in the White Paper, an incident of the kind which occurred at Windscale, leading to a substantial release of radioactivity, could not take place in any of the power stations being designed for the electricity authorities.

I agree that this is an important matter. It is worth emphasising the enormous safety precautions taken in the operation of many of the power stations being planned in the United Kingdom.

Mr. A. Fenner Brockway (Eton and Slough)

A new instrument, the only one of its kind in this country, which is for peaceful atomic purposes, has recently been installed at Slough. It is under the Hawker-Siddeley combination. I am a little surprised that it is not under the control of the Atomic Energy Authority itself, but could the Paymaster-General give an assurance that future instruments such as this one will not spread radioactivity? From one's examination of it, it would appear that that is the case, but it would be reassuring if an official Government statement could be made.

Mr. Maudling

I suspect that I would be out of order in discussing that matter, because there is a Bill, which is passing through the House at present, dealing with the licensing and safety precautions in respect of installations such as the one the hon. Member has in mind. I could not, without causing trouble, go into that point now. I can reassure the hon. Member that we have the problem in mind and that every precaution is being taken.

There is a special problem in connection with radioactive waste to which the hon. Lady referred and with which local authorities are very much concerned. As she herself said, the municipal corporations and other local authority associations are shortly to have a meeting with the Ministry of Housing and Local Government to consider the possibility of a new code of legislation on radioactive waste. That will be a very important meeting. I should like to make it clear that when these consultations take place the whole question of local authority responsibility in the field of radioactivity dangers can come under review. Certainly nothing will be excluded. It is partly because of the prospect of this consultation in the fairly near future that the municipal organisations seem to be satisfied with the present situation.

Here, I should like to quote from the journal of the Association of Municipal Corporations of 27th February. In reply to an inquiry, the Association said: Your authority may, therefore, feel, having regard to the extensive programme at present being undertaken by the Government, that the dangers from radioactivity are being fully explored on a national basis, and that no further action is necessary by individual authorities unless and until statutory duties are specifically placed upon local authorities. I get the clear impression that in the light of that statement and in the light of the forthcoming consultations, local authorities as a whole would feel that the position is satisfactorily covered by the existing national monitoring arrangements.

Medical officers of health have a solemn statutory obligation in this matter and it is important that they should have access, as they have, to very copious literature on the subject. Moreover, as the hon. Lady said, there is a committee of the Atomic Energy Authority considering the whole question of further training facilities in the field of radiological health and safety, and when that committee's report is available I am sure it will be of great interest and value. I think that the Governmental organisation for dealing with this problem is sufficient, and I also think that the facilities available to local authorities are adequate to enable them to discharge the statutory responsibilities which fall on them and for which they rightly have such a very serious regard.

I should like to say something more about the system which exists on a national basis for monitoring radio activity. I do not think that in this matter the Central London area presents any large special technical problems. I agree with the hon. Lady that it presents special problems in that it is the greatest concentration of population in the United Kingdom. I think she is on a very good point there, but I am advised, at any rate, that the special technical problems which arise in certain areas do not really arise in Greater London.

I understand that the danger arising from radioactivity—we are thinking now mainly in terms of the tests of nuclear weapons—can take several forms. Here I must walk warily because if I put a false step I am sure that the right hon. Lady the Member for Warrington will contradict me. I understand that dangers can arise from inhaling radioactive particules in the air or from penetrating radiation from particles on the ground or in suspense or from the consumption of water and food.

So far as inhaling radioactive particles is concerned, the state of the atmosphere which we breathe is regularly monitored by the Atomic Energy Authority at Harwell. I understand that the average level of radioactivity from nuclear explosions has been found to be less than 1 per cent. of that due to natural activity in the air. I think there is here a very wide margin of safety indeed. In fact, as the hon. Lady said, the London County Council conducts monitoring activities in the Greater London area, and so does the firm of Kodak Limited at Harrow.

As to the first result of these emissions into the air, there is a substantial programme on a national basis for monitoring the state of the atmosphere.

Mr. Niall MacDermot (Lewisham, North)

Can the right hon. Gentleman say whether these different monitoring tests show different results in different parts of the country or whether, by and large, they all show the same result?

Mr. Maudling

I understand, so far as the pollution of the atmosphere is concerned, that there is not very much difference. I think the differences arise more where rain has fallen on certain areas and where we get a different quantity of Strontium 90 deposited. That is my understanding.

The second source of possible concern is the radiation dose resulting from penetrating radiation from debris which has fallen on the ground or is in process of falling. Here, again, there is a regular monitoring system which leads one to the conclusion that the possible dose of radiation which may emerge from this fallen debris is naturally a very small fraction of what is likely to be received by people from normal background radiation.

Dr. Summerskill

Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that the whole point is the cumulative danger? There is no comfort in being told, as continually we are told from the Front Bench opposite, that only a small amount comes from each of these sources. It is the cumulative danger that we must beware of, and I should like to hear about that.

Mr. Maudling

The figures I have been given suggest that if we assume that nuclear weapon tests will continue at the present rate for an indefinite period, over a thirty-year period the radiation received from this source is likely to be between 0.02 per cent. and 0.04 per cent. of that received during the same period from natural radiation, which is a very tiny percentage indeed. It is almost infinitesimal.

Mr. Harold Davies (Leek)

That is true, but would the Minister not agree that, in addition to the radiation, we have something that was not on earth until man split the atom, namely, strontium 90 and plutonium? The additional strontium 90 has nothing to do with the natural conditions because that was not there before. This has now reached a pitch where deaths from leukaemia are 6 per cent. higher than they were in 1938 pretty well all over the world. This is something about which the House of Commons and the world should know. I do not want to monopolise the time available, but I hope that the Minister will listen to my right hon. Friend's suggestion. Whichever Government are in power, some Minister should be responsible for collating this information and should either be trained or train himself in the understanding of it.

Mr. Maudling

The effect of strontium 90 was my next point. I agree with the hon. Member that this is probably the most important part of the argument.

Strontium 90 can be ingested into the human system from drinking water or from foodstuffs including milk, milk being the most likely method by which strontium 90 can enter the human system. Here the monitoring system is clearly of very great importance. So far as drinking water is concerned, there is, as the hon. Lady said, a monitoring system operated by the Metropolitan Water Board and the London County Council in addition to the work carried out by the national authorities.

The work done by both these bodies has shown that the amount of strontium 90 that may come into the diet of human beings through drinking water is only a minute fraction of the normal intake, or total dietry intake, of strontium 90. So far as the problem of the intake of strontium 90 is concerned, the amount taken in through drinking water is infinitesimal and therefore not the most important factor. The most important factor is food, particularly milk, and to a rather less extent, fresh vegetables.

Milk is the commodity upon which the monitoring system proposal concentrates. Samples are regularly drawn from about 200 depots handling about 40 per cent. of the total milk produced in the country, including the milk coming into greater London.

We believe that this food sampling programme which we have in the country is more comprehensive than any similar system in the world. In addition, work is being done on imported foodstuffs to which the hon. Lady rightly referred. I would like to inform the hon. Lady that this system of monitoring has recently been extended to include samples of imported cheese, eggs and tea.

The bulk of our supplies come from the Southern Hemisphere where the levels are likely to be lower. As the hon. Lady said, in the Northern Hemisphere one gets a higher degree of contamination than in the Southern Hemisphere. So far as food is concerned, there is a very widespread monitoring system, but it concentrates, in the first place, on milk because that is where there is the greatest danger.

I understand that the significance of strontium 90 is the amount present in human bones. Bone samples are collected over a wide area, including the London area, in association with the national monitoring system for radioactive strontium.

The hon. Lady said, I thought possibly a little over-boldly in her remarks, that the scientists have recently been proved wrong. I think she was referring to those reports which have appeared in the Press of the new American Report on radioactive fall-out of radiostrontium from the atmosphere. As the Prime Minister said today in answer to a Question, we are obtaining urgently copies of that report. I rather think it would be unwise, till we have seen them, to make any statement on them, but I would not accept her statement in this particular, that the scientists have been proved wrong. I think, with respect, that she was jumping the gun a little, though she may be right.

Dr. Summerskill

What about Euratom, which two weeks ago said again that the predictions had been wrong and that there was a much higher concentration than had been expected and, indeed, that we must exercise the greatest vigilance?

Mr. Maudling

I agree that we must exercise the greatest vigilance, and that is why we are anxious to get hold of those American reports. We shall examine them with very keen attention and with a sense of urgency.

When talking about Ministerial responsibility it is important to recognise that Ministerial responsibility in these matters rests with the Prime Minister, who acts as a Departmental Minister on atomic energy matters, and I think the fact that hon. and right hon. Members, who have a special responsibility in all this, feel that that is right shows that they do recognise the importance of these matters.

I would now say a word or two about the results obtained from bone samples, because I think they give a considerable degree of reassurance. I understand that it is generally accepted that the maximum permissible level of strontium 90 for the bones of human beings is about 100 units. The highest level yet reported in the United Kingdom is 3.2 units and the average level in the most vulnerable age group, that is from birth to 5 years old, is only 1.2 units and shows signs of increasing only very slowly.

In London the level would be expected to be lower than the national level. This is borne out by the results of measurements. The highest level yet reported in the London area is 1.2 units. The average is 0.56 units. I am not saying that there is no danger here at all. Of course there is. I am not saying that this suggests that it is not a matter where close and continuous watch must be kept, but I am giving these figures because they seem to me the best evidence of the degree of danger at the present moment and what is likely to exist in the forseeable future. The figures show that we must avoid the danger of an exaggeration of what is implied in the effect on the human race in this country of radioactivity and of the fall-out of radio strontium. I give these figures because they are based on an analysis of practical solid objects and are likely to prove an accurate analysis.

Dr. Summerskill

As the right hon. Gentleman has mentioned the question of bones, will he comment on the increase of leukaemia which is not denied by any medical authority?

Mr. Maudling

The figures I have given today are figures of the level of radiostrontium found in bone samples. I speak rather off the cuff, as I must in these matters, but I would think that if the increased level of strontium 90 in the bones is so very far below the danger level, it is unlikely to have given rise to any deleterious effects for the population. That would be the deduction which I would draw from these figures.

Mr. Harold Davies

This is an old argument.

Mr. Maudling

This subject for debate today on the Adjournment was only lately put down and I am answering on the basis of information available today.

We have been drawn in this debate through a wide range of important matters, but the point originally raised by the hon. Lady was monitoring in the London area and the responsibility of the local authorities in this matter. If I may recapitulate on that, I would say that the general monitoring system in this country is second to none. It is conducted with great skill by our own scientists who are really outstanding in these matters. It is our belief that it is better that it should continue to be on a national basis because the problem is very complex, the degree of skill needed is high, the personnel available for it relatively few, and the instruments required are, I understand, of a highly complex character. Therefore we think it is right to continue this system of national monitoring, although the work done by the L.C.C., to which the hon. Lady referred, is clearly very valuable.

There is to be a conference between the Ministry of Housing and Local Government and the local authorities on the important question of the disposal of radioactive waste, and in the course of that conference local authorities will be able to raise any problem they have in mind about the general question of the responsibility in the matter of radioactivity. I am conscious that I have not satisfied everyone in the House by my reply, and possibly the right hon. Lady the Member for Warrington in particular.

Mr. Harold Davies

What about the radioactive material carried in the railway guard's van? I have seen that done myself.

Mr. Maudling

The question of radioactive substance dealt with by regulations issued by the Minister of Transport is one about which I have no responsibility and certainly I have no brief, but I should be glad to look into it and inform the right hon. Lady the Member for Warrington. I hope that I can say without offence that regulations governing the transport of radioactive material are somewhat remote from the subject of the debate, though I do not suggest that they are irrelevant or out of order, for it would be improper for me so to do. We attach very great importance: as the right hon. Lady rightly does, to this matter and the machinery we have both at Government and authority level for dealing with this problem is satisfactory.

I am sure that the right hon. Lady will continue to harry us on the subject, and that it will be good for us if she does so.