HC Deb 24 October 1961 vol 646 cc747-57
The Minister of Defence (Mr. Harold Watkinson)

As the House knows, the Russians are engaged on a series of nuclear tests and up to yesterday's date had exploded well over 20 weapons, giving a total of well over 20 megatons.

Yesterday morning two further devices were exploded. The first gave the greatest yield of any device yet exploded in the atmosphere. It must be some time before Western scientists can make any accurate assessment of either the total yield of this device or of its nature. Preliminary evidence suggests a yield of the order of 30 megatons.

The second device, expoded two hours later, was of a small yield and was exploded under water. We cannot, of course, say whether this concludes the present series of tests or whether further explosions will take place. As the House knows, the Medical Research Council has been making a special examination of radioactive fall-out in the light of the resumption of nuclear weapon testing in the atmosphere. The Government have just received the Council's report and it will be published later this afternoon. I will only try to summarise here its main aspects.

First, radioactive fall-out is closely monitored in the United Kingdom under a country-wide scheme and the results are published. The levels of radioactivity measured in the air have so far been similar to those observed at an equivalent time after explosions in the autumn of 1958. The increase in radioactivity which would flow from the latest explosions will depend on the make-up of the device, and, particularly, on the extent to which the energy it released was dependent on the fission of nuclear materials.

No accurate estimate can, therefore, be made at this time of the degree of radioactive fall-out to which this country may be subjected as a result of recent tests. The most immediate problem concerns radioactive iodine 131, which can contaminate milk but which has a rapid rate of decay.

The statement by the Medical Research Council sets out clearly the tolerable levels of micro-microcuries which can be accepted in milk. The Government have made plans to meet the situation that might arise if there is an increase in the level of radioactive iodine in milk beyond that considered tolerable by the Medical Research Council. Arrangements are, therefore, being made to ensure that should iodine 131 in liquid milk reach a danger level for infants of up to one year old, alternative forms of milk can immediately be made available for the necessary period.

For reasons set out in the Medical Research Council's report, it is not expected that the level will be such that other children or adults will be at risk.

Mr. G. Brown

I am sure that the House welcomes the frankness of the Minister's statement. There are, however, certain points on which I would like some clarity. Will the report of the Medical Research Council be published in full, thereby giving us a chance to observe the evidence?

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that while this is obviously a serious situation, most of us feel that there will be little danger of our people engaging in anything in the nature of a panic so long as it is made certain that the Government are taking the necessary precautions and are trying to take them in good time?

On the question of milk, if we have anything in the nature of a 50 megaton explosion still to come, we must be somewhere very near the danger point and, obviously, it is better to take precautions that turn out later to be unnecessary because they were taken 50 megatons too soon than to take them 50 megatons too late. I therefore urge on the Minister the importance of acting when we are near the danger point and not when we are over it.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that his statement and the steps we may have to take for children of up to one year old is a demonstration here of the horror that is affecting the whole world? I repeat, while we are all horrified, I am absolutely certain that so long as the necessary steps are taken our people will refuse to be terrorised by it and will call on those responsible to take action themselves.

Mr. Watkinson

I should like to associate myself with what the right hon. Gentleman has just said. None of us in this House can but be appalled by the callous and cruel way in which the Russians have restarted this contamination of the atmosphere.

The Medical Research Council's report is a lengthy document, but I hope that it will be possible to get copies of it in the Vote Office before the House rises to enable hon. Members to study it and to take copies away with them. As to the right hon. Gentleman's remarks on precautions, we have very carefully looked at the monitoring system and I am satisfied that the system will give adequate warning of a dangerous rise in iodine 131.

As for other things like strontium, that is not an immediate problem. The immediate problem is the iodine one. We are satisfied that the monitoring system gives adequate warning. I agree that if the Russians should so disregard the health of the world that they let off another bomb of anything like 40 megatons or 50 megatons, we shall certainly have to watch and, perhaps, expect a dangerous rise in the iodine content. Therefore, my right hon. friend the Minister of Health has made appropriate arrangements and I understand from him that the welfare milk scheme provides the necessary machinery for that purpose.

Lord Balniel

I am sure that the Minister is aware of the sense of disgust which we all feel at the threat to the health of humanity. This accentuates in many people's minds the feeling that Civil Defence is given a low priority in this country compared with a number of other countries.

Mr. Watkinson

That is a little off the question, but I will just say that there are elementary precautions which Civil Defence recommend which certainly could be of great value in periods of fall-out and I hope that those people who are conducting the Civil Defence campaign will know that they are making a major contribution to the safety of the country.

Mr. Grimond

Does not this outbreak of homicidal mania by Russia cause the impression of a lack of self-confidence on their part, rather than the impression of strength? If so, will the Minister bear in mind that the right answer is not for this country at once to start on similar tests? Will the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that that answer will be followed?

Would the right hon. Gentleman consider making the Medical Research Council's report available in simple non-technical language, because there may be confusion and doubt about the matter? Can he also say whether monitoring goes on in the Dependencies as well as in this country and can he now assure us that at this moment there is no danger and that infants can safely drink liquid milk?

Mr. Watkinson

I am advised that the present level of radioactive iodine is well below the margin which the Medical Research Council recommends as being dangerous or near the warning level. Monitoring goes on in the United States, in this country and in most countries that have any scientific facilities for so doing. The report of the Council is, I think, written in fairly simple terms. I found it possible to understand it and it must, therefore, be in pretty simple terms.

Sir J. Maitland

Apart from what the Civil Defence organisation is doing, what direct action have the Government taken, or propose to take, to enable ordinary people to understand how to mitigate these dangers if they can and if they should arise?

Mr. Watkinson

The Civil Defence organisation gives clear guidance on action of a limited nature which households can take to at least mitigate the danger.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

Since the Minister has spoken of the callous and cruel action of the Russians, will he give a definite assurance that this country will not carry on a test which will further add to radioactivity in the atmosphere?

Mr. Watkinson

I said that it was a callous and cruel action to restart the whole business of tests in the atmosphere, particularly at a time when negotiations for a nuclear test Agreement are going on at Geneva and against the background of Mr. Khrushchev's statement that he would never be the first to restart them.

Sir H. Legge-Bourke

While fully endorsing what the right hon. Member for Belpher (Mr. G. Brown) said, may I ask my right hon. Friend whether, throughout all this, he will bear in mind the possibility that these tests may conceivably be designed to make us imagine that we no longer need conventional forces? Will he give an assurance that throughout all this, in taking the necessary precautions against fall-out, he will at the same time ensure that our conventional forces are also made adequate?

Mr. Watkinson

If one has to guess—and it can only be a guess—why the Russians have carried through this series of tests, I think that the best guess is that they have realised that they are behind the Americans in the development of nuclear weapons.

Mr. Ross

Is the Minister aware that everyone in this country, while very concerned about the situation, is equally concerned that the matter is so important that we should not act as well? No country will get very much confidence from the rest of the world if it proclaims peace and spreads poison as the Russians have done on this occasion. Will the right hon. Gentleman give us some assurance about the arrangements—are they national or regional? So far as I can gather, there may well be a different effect according to climatic conditions in different parts of the country.

Mr. Watkinson

The hon. Gentleman is perfectly correct. There might well be a difference in different areas. It is a national scheme, but it is capable of local variation, so to speak. For example, it could be implemented in an area which was affected, without necessarily bringing in the whole national arrangement.

Commander Courtney

Could my right hon. Friend say whether the Russian people have yet been told by their leaders of the dreadful things which have been done in their name?

Mr. Watkinson

I understand not.

Mr. J. Griffiths

When the Minister is making arrangements with the welfare services for the distribution of dried milk, if that event should arise, could he pay more attention to areas as, for example, in mid-Wales, including Snowdonia, where the danger may be highest and where, for reasons which we all understand, the welfare services may not be as good as they are elsewhere? Secondly, will this dried milk be supplied to the people at the expense of the nation?

Mr. Watkinson

I quite accept what the right hon. Gentleman said, particularly about mountainous areas being difficult in this respect, and I will take careful note of what he says. I understand from the Minister of Health that the supply of the dried milk would be handled through the welfare milk scheme.

Mr. J. Wells

While welcoming the statement by my right hon. Friend that the language of the Medical Research Council's report is simple, if there are any sensible and simple precautions which the farming community could take for a few days, could the farming community be advised of them in a separate, straightforward agricultural note?

Mr. Watkinson

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I will certainly take careful note of what he says and see whether anything can be done.

Mr. A. Henderson

In view of the recent American statement that the United States Government have both the "know-how" and the resources to explode both a 50 megaton and a 100 megaton bomb, should not a further attempt be made to stop this suicidal policy? Would not the Government consider expressing their willingness to enter into a further extension of the voluntary moratorium, say for another twelve months, pending a further attempt to secure the nuclear tests agreement to which we have all made such a contribution for the settlement of this problem?

Mr. Watkinson

I know how sincerely the right hon. and learned Gentleman and, I think, all hon. Members feel about this, but, with respect to him, this is quite another question. However, I will take a most careful note of what he has said.

Mr. G. Brown

Coming back to the point raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelly (Mr. J. Griffiths) just now, may I put this point to the Government? The announcement made today, however calmly we may receive it, may worry mothers with very young babies. Would the Government consider making the dried milk available from now to any of those mothers who feel that they would like to have it?

Mr. Watkinson

I am very glad that the right hon. Gentleman has raised that point, because I want to be as clear as I can. I should like to say again that on today's assessment, and on the best scientific advice, the present level of radioactive iodine is well below not only the danger level, but what is called the warning level at which we should have to begin. So, as the right hon. Gentleman himself said, there is at the moment no possible danger, and mothers with young children need not feel, at this stage, that their children are being subjected to any risk.

The other thing that I should like to add is that I would certainly regard it as one of the most important duties which fall on the Government to make quite sure that early warning is given if this level begins to rise.

Mr. Gower

Is it not probable that as soon as the Russians have concluded their present series of tests we shall be faced with a world-wide campaign for the cessation of tests and other consequential effects from neutral and uncommitted nations all over the world? Would my right hon. Friend consult with his right hon. Friends so that at the earliest possible date we should declare our views about the currency of tests at the United Nations?

Mr. Watkinson

I think that action k being taken in the United Nations now. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. If I may say so to all hon. Members who have taken part in these interchanges, I think that the sense of the House in its horror and disgust at what is happening, and its feeling in unity, that we will not be panicked by this action, is perhaps the best action that we can take following what the Russians have done.

Mrs. Castle

Does not this latest explosion show, as the Guardian correspondent points out today, that Mr. Khrushchev is following the same policy as Her Majesty's Government outlined in their Defence White Paper of 1958, namely, the assumption that another war would be a nuclear war from the outset? Therefore, is not the best answer to this explosion for Her Majesty's Government to abandon their empty pursuit of nuclear strength and concentrate on the development of conventional forces?

Mr. Watkinson

That is quite another question.

Mr. Mason

Can the right hon. Gentleman say, first, whether the Medical Research Council has made any estimate at all of the genetic effects on people following the last series of tests in 1958 and the cumulative effect of the present Russian series? Secondly, what have we learned in general during the moratorium period about the body's ability to absorb radiation in small spasmodic doses? It is as well to know the facts because, as there is little chance of international agreement on the cessation of tests, this may be an ever-present danger with which we have got to live.

Mr. Watkinson

The hon. Gentleman will find that the Medical Research Council's report, which is a lengthy document, deals in full, for example, with the reassessed level of strontium and all these technical matters. I speak only as a layman and I would judge that it gives a reasonable answer to that point.

Mr. H. Hynd

Would the Minister give a straight answer to the question that he has been asked twice? Will he resist any provocation for this country to explode a bomb as a retaliation for what has already happened?

Mr. Watkinson

A perfectly straight and clear answer was given by my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs yesterday.

Mr. G. Thomas

The Minister is bound to realise that although the House has taken this serious statement quietly, there will be very deep anxiety amongst good people in the country. Will he, therefore, ensure that places such as those referred to by my right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelly (Mr. J. Griffiths), including those places in mid-Wales where there was a very high strontium level after the last series of tests, shall know the figures at an early date?

Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House, on behalf of the Government, that some urgent action is being taken by Her Majesty's Government now, such as Lord Attlee took when there was the threat to use the atom bomb in Korea? Is there not a move that Her Majesty's Government are making to let the Russian people know the feeling of our nation on this question?

Mr. Watkinson

I should have thought that that is what the House of Commons was doing at this stage.

As to the first part of the question—and this is very material—I can only say again that we do appreciate that some parts of the country may be more susceptible than others. I think that hon. Members would gain a good deal from reading the report of the Medical Research Council because it sets out the problems and the difference, for example, in the decay rate of iodine and the decay rate of strontium. We will carefully watch the point.

Mr. Holland

Does the direction of the wind at the time of the explosion affect the direction in which the radioactive particles will travel? If so, has my right hon. Friend any information about the direction of the wind in the area of this explosion at the time when it occurred?

Mr. Watkinson

I do not wish to say too much in detail about what we know of what happened. All I can say at the moment is that it is too early to judge yet whether the winds are favourable or unfavourable for this country.

Mr. Elwyn Jones

Can there now be any moral, political or legal justification for any Government knowingly poisoning the world's atmosphere and maiming children yet unborn? Is it not high time that a civilised nation—I hope that it will prove to be the British—referred this matter at once to the International Court of Justice for an opinion condemning this monstrous illegality?

Mr. Watkinson

I will certainly consider what the hon. and learned Gentleman has said. The matter is before the United Nations at the moment, as he knows, and I think that that body is not debarred from any action.

Mr. S. Silverman

On the question of the legality of these weapons, will the Minister bear in mind that I ventured to suggest to the Government three years ago that an advisory opinion should be obtained from the International Court? Further, does the Minister agree with the description by the Leader of the Liberal Party of this test as an act of homicidal mania? If he does agree with that description, will he give us now a specific answer—never mind what the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs said yesterday—that the homicidal mania does not affect us and that we will not ourselves test, or, still more, ever use any such weapon?

Mr. Watkinson

I quite agree that the legal aspects of this matter should be carefully examined, and that will be done. On the general issue of policy, the House will not expect me to make an "off-the-cuff" statement on this matter. As I said, the position was clearly set out by my hon. Friend yesterday.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. We cannot debate this matter now, without a Question before the House.

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