HC Deb 14 March 1963 vol 673 cc1522-4
Q1 Mr. Driberg

asked the Prime Minister (1) if he is aware that, on the basis of data contained in the 1962 Report of the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, one result of nuclear tests conducted up to the end of 1961 will be that, of the babies born alive each year, at least 3,000 who would have been healthy will be born suffering from genetic defects; if he has studied the evidence sent to him in support of this estimate; and if he will give an assurance that no more tests will be underaken by Her Majesty's Government;

(2) if he is aware of the conclusions arrived at in the 1962 Report of the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, for instance that there is no way of preventing the harmful effects of any increase in radiation exposure and that these effects, in the case of genetic damage, may not be fully manifested for many generations; and if he will therefore, in consultation with the President of the United States and in view of the Soviet concession on the principle of on-site inspection, initiate a new effort to achieve an agreement to ban all nuclear tests.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Macmillan)

I have had the article which the hon. Member sent to me studied. Both the Medical Research Council and the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation in their second report, have taken the view that there is at present insufficient knowledge to justify attempting to make numerical estimates of genetic defects due to small doses of radiation received as a result of the testing of nuclear weapons. The total additional radiation from testing is small compared with the background radiation to which we are all subject.

But whatever the precise degree of danger may be, it is the determined policy of Her Majesty's Government to work for a ban on nuclear tests both as an objective in itself and also as a step towards general disarmament.

I am following the course of the Disarmament Conference at Geneva closely. I have always made it clear that I would be prepared to take any initiative which seemed likely to help the negotiations.

As to British tests, the only ones we have undertaken in recent years have been conducted underground to avoid polluting the atmosphere with radioactive fall-out. No more tests are at present planned.

Mr. Driberg

The Prime Minister says that he has had this article studied. I admit that most of it is highly technical—much too technical for me—but can he say whether he has read the last part of it, which is quite comprehensible to a layman? Bearing in mind that the author of the article, Dr. Anne McLaren, is a distinguished geneticist at Edinburgh University, who did not make this estimate lightly or carelessly, will the Prime Minister look again at this aspect of the matter?

The Prime Minister

I agree that this article, written by a very distinguished man, should be taken very seriously.

Hon. Members

It was written by a woman.

Mr. A. Henderson

In view of the fact that there is no longer any differ- ence of principle between the Soviet Union and the Western Governments in the matter of on-site inspections, and that the difference is only on the question of numbers, will the Prime Minister consider communicating with Mr. Khrushchev, as he undertook to do in his letter of 10th April last year, suggesting that this problem should be submitted to the scientists of the three countries, to be decided on the basis of the absolute minimum number of on-site inspections that are necessary, and not on a political basis?

The Prime Minister

I will take note of that suggestion. There are some other questions, relating to the character of the arrangements to be made for tests, but I quite agree that the reversion of the Russians to their position of 1960, when they accepted the principle of on-site tests—which they subsequently abandoned—is an important step forward. I am very hopeful that it may ultimately lead to a solution.

Mr. P. Noel-Baker

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that one small underground test will give very little military advantage to those who carry it out, and that a series of tests is almost certain to be detected? Does not that show the advantage of trying to reach agreement, even on the basis of three on-site inspections?

The Prime Minister

The important thing is that the principle of on-site inspection has been accepted. The number still has to be negotiated. There also remains to be negotiated the question of the conditions of inspection, which involve a large number of technical considerations.

Mr. Driberg

Is the Prime Minister aware that until Mr. Khrushchev made this concession of principle we were told that this was the one thing which kept the two sides apart at Geneva, but that as soon as he made the concession the Western delegates appeared to be taken rather aback and started to drag their heels, according to all reports from Geneva?

The Prime Minister

I do not think that is quite fair because in point of fact the Americans very much reduced the numbers they asked for from the ones they originally thought of.