HC Deb 08 May 1962 vol 659 cc215-25
Q5. Mr. A. Henderson

asked the Prime Minister whether he will now make a statement on the steps taken to limit the concentration of radioactive fall-out from the present United States series of tests and the estimates which have been made of the yield of radioactive fall-out in repect of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics tests of last September and October and the present United States series of tests.

Q13 Mr. Gordon Walker

asked the Prime Minister (1) what information he has received about radioactive fall-out in this country as a result of the recent Russian nuclear test;

(2) what information he has received about radioactive fall-out in this country likely to result from the present series of United States nuclear tests.

Q19. Mr. Frank Allaun

asked the Prime Minister if he will make a statement about the deposit up to date of fall-out in Great Britain from the Russia nuclear test last autumn; and what future level is anticipated.

Q21. Mrs. Hart

asked the Prime Minister what scientific advice he has received on the possible effects of the present series of nuclear tests on Christmas Island.

The Prime Minister

This series of Questions deals with the natural concern lest the fall-out from the American tests should add to the existing anxiety due to the fall-out from the last series of Russian tests. It may be convenient for the Houe if I summarise the position as follows.

Fall-out is divided into two categories —the immediate fall-out that follows within a week or two of atmospheric tests, and the long-term fall-out which is spread over a much greater period. After the Russian tests we had certain anxieties about possible harm due to iodine and we made special provisions in case this should reach an unacceptable degree. It proved, however, unnecessary to enforce these precautions. This fallout has now passed away. With regard to the long-term strontium fall-out from the Russian tests, this is still persisting but it is well below the level recorded in 1959 which was the comparable period when fall-out from the tests conducted by all nuclear Powers in the previous year became effective. There is therefore no immediate anxiety about this. With regard to the American atmospheric tests of this character, the immediate short-term fall-out will be very small and is likely to disperse in the same way as the fall-out from the Russian tests. With regard to the longer term effects, there is no reason to suppose that it will reach any serious level. As the President has already said precautions have been taken to reduce this to the minimum and it will be less than 1/50th of the difference which can be experienced as a result of variations in natural radioactivity simply by living in different parts of the United States.

Mr. Henderson

We are told that the present American series of tests will be followed by another Soviet series of tests, and meanwhile the test ban conference in Geneva continues in a state of deadlock. Will not the Prime Minister make every effort to bring about an early meeting between President Kennedy and Mr. Khrushchev with a view to ending the suicidal race in the development of nuclear weapons?

The Prime Minister

There are two quite separate questions. One is the danger from fall-out, which I have tried to put into perspective, and the other is the importance of trying to bring about an acceptable agreement among the Great Powers to cease these tests altogether.

Mr. Allaun

Do net the A.E.C. figures published this morning show that the full-out level in Britain today is thirty times what it was last May? If the Russian tests were wrong, as they certainly were, how can the American tests be right? If the tit-for-tat tests are likely to continue, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rowley Regis and Tipton (Mr. A. Henderson) says, should not the Prime Minister give a lead to the world by contracting out, certainly for British territory such as Christmas Island?

The Prime Minister

Again, there are two quite separate questions. From the figures which I have given to the House and the advice which has been given to me, I do not think that there is any serious concern about the actual effect of either the short-term iodine results or the longer-term strontium particles which remain in the atmosphere. On the larger question, I do not accept the argument of tit-for-tat tests. President Kennedy and I made it quite clear in November that we would not enter into a contest of that kind. The only justification—and I believe it to be a real justification—for the tests now being conducted is that they are necessary to confirm the strength of the British-American deterrent.

Mrs. Hart

May I ask the Prime Minister, on the specific point concerning the high-altitude tests, about the scientific advice which he has received? Is he aware that from all that is known of the consequences of the Argus series of tests a few years ago and from the great concern being expressed by responsible scientists in this country about the possible effects of the high-altitude tests, there is a grave onus on the military scientists, both in America and this country, to prove that there are not involved the dangers to scientific research and the world generally which it is believed may be involved? Will he therefore ask that the high-altitude tests should not take place until we have had the kind of reassurance which we need?

Mr. Speaker

That supplementary question inevitably anticipates Question No. Q7, which we have not yet reached.

The Prime Minister

If it is the wish of the House, I could proceed to the next series of Questions which deal with high altitude as opposed to ordinary atmospheric tests.

Mrs. Hart

On a point of order. I understood that the Prime Minister asked permission to answer my Question, Question No. Q21, with this series.

Mr. Speaker

I thought that the hon. Lady's supplementary question inevitably anticipated another Question which we have not yet reached.

Mr. Gaitskell

Perhaps it would be for the convenience of the House, without prejudice to the rights of hon. Members whose Questions have already been answered, if the Prime Minister were to answer the other series of Questions on the high-altitude tests, and then we could then have supplementary questions on both series of Questions together.

Mr. Speaker

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. Let us try. Mr. Driberg.

Mr. Rankin

Further to that point of order. In order to prevent any confusion, will you, Mr. Speaker, now enumerate the further Questions which are to be answered?

Mr. Speaker

No. I called Mr. Driberg.

Q6. Mr. Driberg

asked the Prime Minister if he was informed by the President of the United States of the impending high-altitude nuclear tests; and if, in view of the risk that such tests may seriously interfere with important current research by astronomers and geophysicists, he will request the President to cancel these tests or to instruct the responsible United States experts, before proceeding further with preparations for them, to consult fully with international scientific bodies.

Q7. Mr. John Hall

asked the Prime Minister what assurances he has received that the proposed explosion by the United States of America of a hydrogen bomb in space will not affect seriously the scientific study of the nature of the solar system.

Q14 Mr. Warbey

asked the Prime Minister (1) whether he will represent to President Kennedy the concern felt at the possible effects of the planned American nuclear test in the upper atmosphere on scientific research;

(2) what steps are being taken to protect the inhabitants of British islands in the Pacific from injury to their eyesight as a result of the planned American high-altitude nuclear test.

Q16. Mr. Rankin

asked the Prime Minister if he will urge President Kennedy to abandon further atmospheric and stratospheric nuclear explosions over the Pacific Ocean because of their dangerous effects on scientific experiments proceeding in that area.

Q20. Mrs. Castle

asked the Prime Minister whether, in view of the danger to the eyesight of people in various parts of the British Commonwealth from the nuclear tests which the United States is proposing to conduct at high altitudes, what arrangements have been made for advance notice to be given to the world of the exact timing of these tests.

Q23. Mr. Brockway

asked the Prime Minister, in view of the damage that would be caused to the interests of scientific research into the upper atmosphere and stratosphere, if he will withhold the use of Christmas Island for the American explosion of nuclear weapons at heights of around 500 miles.

Q24. Mr. Paget

asked the Prime Minister what estimates have been made as to the yield of radioactive fall-out consequent upon the high altitude tests which are to be conducted by the United States Government; and if he will make a statement.

The Prime Minister

These Questions deal with the high-altitude tests which the United States authorities propose to make from Johnston Island. On this I would make the following comments.

First, this is an experiment not connected with the agreement for the use of Christmas Island but wholly within United States control. The British Government and our scientists have, however, been kept fully informed throughout. Secondly, from the point of view of health the fall-out from these very high-altitude tests is negligible. I understand that the Atomic Energy Commission has announced that public notice of the timing of high-altitude tests will be given about four days in advance. The responsibility for safety in the immediate area of the tests is a matter for the United States authorities. The nearest British territory is over 1,000 miles away and I am informed that there is no danger of damage to the eyes at this distance. Thirdly, the purpose of this experiment is of the greatest importance from the point of view of defence for it is intended to find out how radio, radar and other communications systems, on which all defence depends, might be temporarily put out of action by explosions of this kind. Since the whole defensive system of the West depends largely upon a highly developed method of intercommunication it will be seen that this matter is of the greatest significance to our defence. Fourthly, there is the argument that interference with the natural radiation belts which surround the world at these high altitudes will upset proper scientific investigation of their character and purpose.

On the last point, I would only say that there are two views. The original discoverer of these belts, Dr. Van Allen, has declared that, in his view, from the purely scientific aspect, it would be an interesting experiment to introduce a disturbance into their natural features in order to see how they react. Other scientists feel that they would prefer to study them a little longer in their natural form before any artificial introduction is made into their natural life. Into this high altitude of thought I would hesitate to make any personal exploration but I would sum up in this way. The responsibility for these tests is solely on the United States Government; the fall-out will be negligible; the experiment is of the greatest importance from the defence point of view; and what will be the result from the scientific point of view is indeterminate but at any rate interesting.

Mr. Driberg

Since the Prime Minister mentions defence as a justification for these tests, does he recall that at Geneva recently Her Majesty's Government supported the Canadian proposal that outer space should not be used for military purposes? Why has he now departed from that view? Secondly, has he seen the very strong protest by Sir Bernard Lovell and other eminent British scientists? Even if this matter is the exclusive responsibility of the United States Government, since it affects the whole world, including Britain and the Commonwealth, can the Prime Minister do nothing to restrain this cosmic madness?

The Prime Minister

In reply to the first point, if there were complete agreement to abolish all tests, of course these, like all others, would come to an end. That would be one of the beneficial results of agreement. On the second point, however, as long as this is an important defence question—and it is a very important one—I think it right that the United States Government should make it. With regard to the purely scientific question, which is a matter very much of dispute, one can at least comfort oneself that until a very short time ago, nobody knew that the Van Allen Belts existed. If they should now be temporarily disturbed, I do not think that great harm will come to the world.

Mr. Warbey

Can the Prime Minister say whether the scientists are able to give any precise indication of the effect upon the radiation belts of these tests? Can the scientists say with certainty that the explosion will not have consequences which may be harmful, not only to scientific research, but also to the wellbeing of the inhabitants of this planet? Instead of taking a frivolous attitude towards this deadly serious question, will the Prime Minister take steps to see that we do not have to be faced with this fearful shot in the dark?

The Prime Minister

The scientific point is a very complicated one and much disputed. As I have said, Dr. Van Allen, who discovered these belts, takes the view that this will be an interesting and not a damaging experiment from the purely scientific aspect. Of course, however, this experiment would not have been made had it not been for the important defence aspect of it. It is a great error to think that this is something absolutely novel. It is not the first high-altitude explosion which has been made and I think that in all the circumstances it would be not only wrong but futile for the British Government to try to urge that it should be withheld.

Mr. Rankin

When the Prime Minister was discussing the question of high-altitude nuclear tests with President Kennedy, did the President of the United States inform him that America had secretly broken the atomic truce in March, 1959, by exploding a high-altitude nuclear device above the South Atlantic which, according to our scientists, had a serious disruptive effect upon the environment of the earth? Is the Prime Minister aware that our pure scientists, not the military ones, tell us now that the device to be exploded 500 miles above the Pacific will have an even more devastating effect than the one exploded in the South Atlantic?

The Prime Minister

These are very exaggerated statements. I took the opportunity yesterday afternoon to have as full a briefing as possible from the most distinguished British scientists.

Mr. Driberg

Sir Bernard Lovell?

The Prime Minister

I can only assure the House that what I have tried to tell hon. Members is a fair picture of the meaning, purpose and likely result of a high-altitude test.

Mrs. Castle

Is it not a fact that when the United States exploded a small nuclear device in space in 1958, the eyes of experimental rabbits were burned out at 350 miles away? Is it not also a fact, as the New York Times has pointed out, that scientists simply do not know what is the safe distance from the forthcoming explosion, which will be 1,000 times as great? Is not this fact ground enough in itself for the British Government to make urgent representations to the United States to stop these tests, whose consequences on the eyesight of innumerable people who may be caught unaware of the danger are unknown?

The Prime Minister

I am informed that that danger is minimal and that due notice will be given—and the distances are very great. I go back to saying that I regard this experiment, it having been explained to me, as one that is necessary. I think that anybody who knows on what basis the intercommunication system on which defence depends is now operated will regard this as an important and, indeed, vital experiment.

Mr. Brockway

May I first apologise to you, Mr. Speaker, and to the House because in my Question I thought that the explosion was taking place from Christmas Island? I apologise for that mistake. Is the Prime Minister aware that all of us hope that his anticipations about the small effects of this explosion will prove true, but is there not a tremendous responsibility with the Prime Minister in this matter? Is it not an invasion of the unknown, which may not expand knowledge, but restrict it? Is it not a grave gamble with the health and life of millions of people? If the Prime Minister has any doubts whatever about it, ought he to take this responsibility?

The Prime Minister

I have tried to give the House as complete and accurate a picture as I can from the knowledge which is at my disposal.

Sir H. Legge-Bourke

In view of the great concern which has been shown by Sir Bernard Lovell, will the Prime Minister consider asking the President of the United States to give facilities to Professor Lovell and any other suitable astronomers to meet those scientists in the United States who are in charge of this operation? Many of us, on both sides of the House, are genuinely worried at Sir Bernard Lovell's reactions.

The Prime Minister

I am quite ready to take that into account and do what I can. I would, however, point out that Sir Bernard Lovell did not anticipate all these terrible results. What he said was that he thought it would put back studies of the radiation belts; in other words, he did not want them to be disturbed.

Mr. Rankin

He said more than that.

Mr. Paget

Is the position that whilst there is a difference of opinion amongst the scientists as to whether the effects on cosmic communications and space exploration may be affected advan- tageously or disadvantageously, there is no disagreement whatever amongst the scientists that explosions out of the atmosphere are much less dangerous to humanity than explosions inside the atmosphere?

The Prime Minister

The hon. and learned Gentleman has summed it up completely.

Mr. Gaitskell

First, will the Prime Minister say a little more about what appears to be the one danger to those of us who are living below the atmosphere—the flash from the explosion? Is this a serious danger? Has it been considered? What is the answer to those who express anxiety on that point? Secondly, can the Prime Minister say whether, apart from this, it is correct to say that these explosions in high altitudes will have no effect at all on humanity generally? Thirdly, will the Prime Minister seriously consider publishing as a White Paper a scientific account of the whole of this business, including the present state of affairs in respect of nuclear tests and fall-out?

Mr. Emrys Hughes

And have a debate and a Division.

The Prime Minister

With regard to the first point, I am sure that there is no danger such as is feared. On the second point, about strontium and the rest, there is far less danger from this form of explosion than from any other. As for the third point, I will consider whether at a suitable moment some White Paper should be produced giving the results of these experiments, so far as it is possible to do so, having regard to the need for security.

Mr. Grimond

Reverting to the defence aspect of these tests, I understand the Prime Minister to say that they may show that it is possible completely to knock out the early warning systems of the West and the East, and also to render second strike weapons useless? If so, does not this knock out the whole foundation for the doctrine of the deterrent?

The Prime Minister

It is very important, in any defence system, to know what counter-measures could in theory be brought against it.

Mr. M. Foot

When the Prime Minister considers issuing a statement on the scientific aspects of these high-altitude tests will he also arrange for a statement to be made giving the names of British scientists who agree with the view that these tests are harmless and should go ahead, together with their statement of opinion, so that they may be subjected to examination by such people of Professor Sir Bernard Lovell? Is it not quite evident from the Prime Minister's last reference to Sir Bernard that he cannot even have read what he had to say on this matter? Finally, as there is obvious difficulty in dealing with a matter of this nature by way of Question and Answer, will he arrange for a debate in the House so that the House can vote on it?

The Prime Minister

It is not the normal practice for the British Government or any Government to give the names of its scientific advisers. The Government must stand on their own decisions. As for the hon. Member's last point, the question of a debate does not rest with me. It is a matter for arrangement between the usual channels.

Mr. Allaun

On a point of order. In view of the unsatisfactory nature of the reply, I beg to give notice that I shall raise the matter on the Adjournment.

At the end of Questions