HC Deb 30 April 1986 vol 96 cc937-44 3.36 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Tim Eggar)

With permission, I should like to make a statement about the evacuation of British subjects following the nuclear accident at Chernobyl in the Soviet Union.

Following indications from countries bordering the Soviet Union, the Soviet authorities announced late on 28 April that there had been an accident at the nuclear reactor in Chernobyl. This was a full day after radioactivity had first been monitored in Scandinavia. The embassy in Moscow was in touch with the Soviet authorities early the next morning to seek information. The Soviet authorities were unwilling to give any details but assured our embassy that there was no cause for concern over the British citizens in Kiev and Minsk. In the absence of any authoritative information from the Soviet authorities, which sadly continues to be a feature of this crisis, the ambassador was instructed to seek the fullest possible details. He was only able to talk to the Soviet authorities this morning.

During the course of yesterday afternoon I took the decision, in the light of the continuing uncertainty and lack of authoritative information, that it would not be right for British citizens to visit the western Soviet Union unless absolutely necessary. As regards those already there, we requested the fullest co-operation of the Soviet authorities in assisting any who decided to leave to do so. The embassy was instructed to offer every help in this respect, including repatriation.

I reviewed the situation again this morning. Despite the inadequate information from the Soviet Union, it was evident, particularly from reports based on United States satellite observations and from Swedish scientific sources, that the situation at Chernobyl was such that it was necessary to advise British citizens in Kiev and Minsk to leave. We have also decided to extend to north-east Poland the advice already given to intending travellers to the western Soviet Union. We are in touch with the Polish Government to identify which areas they consider to be at risk.

Our embassy is in continuing contact with the Soviet authorities about the practical arrangements for evacuation. That will probably mean that the students from Kiev and Minsk should travel to Moscow for evacuation from Moscow. Our ambassador has been told that the Soviet authorities will be of assistance. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will be seeing the Soviet ambassador this afternoon and impressing on him the need for the fullest practical co-operation.

There are still many unanswered questions. We urge the Soviet authorities to release the fullest possible information immediately. We have established an expert working group in order to monitor the situation on an hourly basis and advise Ministers on appropriate action.

The lesson of this incident is that the openness which Mr. Gorbachev has said is necessary in Soviet society must become a reality.

Mr. George Robertson (Hamilton)

The Opposition welcome the swift action which has been taken to bring home the students and teachers in the areas of the Soviet Union affected by this undoubted catastrophe.

We thank those in the British embassy in Moscow, in the British Council and elsewhere who have acted so quickly. Will the Minister reassure us that the evacuated students and teachers will not have to bear additional cost as a result of this sudden departure? Given the cuts which have already been made in the past few years in the British Council's budget, will he ensure that it is recompensed for any additional costs resulting from this emergency, especially if a decision must regrettably be made about the tour of the Soviet Union by the London Festival ballet this weekend?

Have all the bureaucratic restrictions in the Soviet Union on travel and movement been lifted by the Soviet authorities? This is not a time for pretending to play it cool. Rather it is a time for urgent action.

On the wider issues, it is absurd and outrageous that at this late stage we know so little of this cataclysmic disaster. It is completely unacceptable for the Soviet Union's paranoid secrecy to continue to conceal from neighbouring countries the danger facing their peoples. Radioactivity does not respect the lines on any map or national frontiers, and there is a direct and urgent obligation on the Soviet Union and its new leadership to be frank and forthcoming about what is going on.

Can we be assured that the British Government have offered technical help, given the unique knowledge and experience that we have? When was it offered, and can we be assured that the Government will continue to press it? What are the Government doing about demanding better international standards for civil nuclear power and toughening the role of the International Atomic Energy Agency? Is not one lesson of this dreadful incident for both Britain and the Soviet Union that secrecy and civil nuclear power do not go together?

Mr. Eggar

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks about Foreign Office officials—I shall pass those remarks on—and about the active role that the British Council has played with regard to the students.

I am sure that the Soviet embassy will take careful note of what the hon. Gentleman said about Soviet secrecy. I simply repeat what I said in my statement: that it would have been much easier had the Soviet Union been more open in the circumstances.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will repeat the assurance that was given this morning by our ambassador that we would be willing to give technical assistance if we were asked. We have not yet been asked. As for strengthening the IAEA rules, it is of course interesting that, when the rules were drafted, it was very much on the initiative of Soviet and British specialists working together. It is unfortunate that the Soviet Union has not at least conformed to the spirit of those rules.

I am told that the students in Minsk will travel on their revalidated air tickets from Moscow to London under arrangements that have been made by the British Council. We understand that those in Kiev, most of whom are there under the arrangement of Progressive Tours, are making similar arrangements for their return.

As for the hon. Gentleman's request for assurances about expenses that are incurred and the Festival ballet being cancelled, I am sure that he is aware that we are in constant touch with the British Council and the company. As yet, no decision has been made to cancel the tour. We shall continue to co-operate.

I am grateful for the tone in which the hon. Gentleman opened his remarks.

Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border)

On behalf of my constituents who have young people studying in Minsk, may I thank my hon. Friend for his exceptionally prompt action in getting people evacuated? Will he make it clear to the Soviets that we will not tolerate any hindrance when it comes to getting our students out of Minsk or Kiev to Moscow and thence to London? Have any plans been laid for medical tests of those who have been evacuated?

Mr. Eggar

I thank my hon. Friend. We have had assurances that no hindrance will be put in the way of those who wish to leave. We shall have to see how matters develop, but we have no reason to believe that any bureaucratic delays will be put in people's paths. We are arranging for students and others who are returning to London, immediately to undergo a full medical check at Oxford. We are also making arrangements to fly out monitoring equipment to Moscow, which will be operated by our embassy there so that we can keep an eye on radioactivity levels in Moscow.

Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)

May I join the Minister in condemning the unnecessary time lag and secrecy? Will the survey of possible contamination that the students may have suffered be carried out by the National Radiological Protection Board and will they be monitored regularly? Has the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority offered any technical help to the Soviet Union to fight the fire? If not, why not?

Mr. Eggar

As for the survey of the health of those who return, what happens in future will depend on the examination that they will undergo at Oxford. We are considering that matter carefully. No offer has been made by the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority directly, but we are making it quite clear to the Soviet authorities that, if a request is made, we will help as best we can.

Mr. David Howell (Guildford)

Is my hon. Friend aware that I have several constituents who are visiting Kiev and Minsk, notably from Surrey university at Guildford? My hon. Friend says that arrangements are being made to evacuate them through Moscow as apparently, the Soviet authorities' normal rules require that all departures from Russia are through Moscow. Will my hon. Friend prevail on the Soviet authorities in this case, as all the trains and airlines from Kiev to Moscow are very heavily booked, to allow my constituents in Kiev and, if necessary, in Minsk to depart through Prague or Budapest instead, where they can get out much more quickly and with much less hassle and difficulty?

Mr. Eggar

I am aware of the representations that my right hon. Friend had made on behalf of his constituents. Our latest information is that it is not possible to get places on the aeroplanes from Kiev to Moscow tonight, but we believe that places will be made available on the overnight train. Our embassy in Moscow is keeping close tabs on that and we shall certainly consider my right hon. Friend's argument should it be necessary.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

Although I welcome the Minister's statement about the efforts to safeguard British citizens, he will recognise that people who are contaminated could suffer very long-term effects from cancer. It is not infectious like for example, a plague. President Reagan, most generously and completely, has offered the full facilities of the United States to help the Soviet Union for, in a certain area of nuclear technology, there has always been close co-operation between the Americans, the British and the Russians, especially on nuclear safety.

Will the Government go further than indicating a readiness to help? Will they put at the disposal of the Soviet authorities the experts from the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority, British Nuclear Fuels plc, the National Radiological Protection Board and the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate, which have great experience of handling matters of this kind? As this is a major international environmental catastrophe, can it be seen in that light rather than simply as an opportunity to attack secrecy, which I greatly regret, in the Soviet Union, as there have been accidents or near-accidents in Britain and a major effort to cover up what has happened. Such a disaster could happen in any nulcear power station in the world, including ones here.

Mr. Eggar:

The right hon. Gentleman is developing a considerable ability to miss the point. We will of course make assistance available to the Soviet Union when it is requested. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will reiterate that fact to the Soviet Ambassador this afternoon. The Soviets have already been informed by the Swedes and the Germans that they feel that we are the people who have the most likely expertise in this area because of our experience with graphite fires. Our people are standing by to be of assistance if the Soviet Union requests.

Mr. Michael Latham (Rutland and Melton)

When the Prime Minister meets the Soviet ambassador this afternoon, will she make it clear to him that, if this dreadful tragedy is to be properly sorted out to prevent such events in the future, it is essential that the Soviet Union gives all the scientific information properly and gives a great deal more information than it has so far chosen to give its own citizens?

Mr. Eggar

I am confident that my right hon. Friend will be making that point.

Sir John Biggs-Davison (Epping Forest)

I thank my hon. Friend and his officials for their advice and assistance during the night to my constituent in Kiev and her parents. In the event of any obstruction to the evacuation, will he immediately acquaint the House with the fact? Our concern is with our constituents, but is it not the case that, despite the attitude of the Soviet authorities and what we may think of that attitude, our sympathy remains with the Ukrainians and other peoples who have been affected by this disaster?

Mr. Eggar

Of course we express a great deal of sympathy for the people who have been killed and for those who may die in the future as a result of this appalling incident. With regard to information to my right hon. Friend and other right hon. and hon. Members who have been in touch with the office, we will continue, so far as we are able, to give an update directly to hon. Members and to the families of those concerned. We do not anticipate any obstruction, but if there should be any I will inform the House.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. May I remind the House that the Minister's statement was concerned with the evacuation of or assistance to British subjects, not with the general principle, which I know is of great concern? We must stick to the statement. Furthermore, we have a heavy day before us. I intend to give precedence to those hon. Members who were not called on the private notice question yesterday. In view of the business before the House, I can only allow the statement to continue for a further 10 minutes.

Dr. Jeremy Bray (Motherwell, South)

Will the Minister arrange for those arriving from the Soviet Union to be thoroughly debriefed so that the greatest amount of information is gathered? Will he ensure that there is radiation measuring equipment, not only in Moscow but at all available locations in eastern Europe where it can be placed? Is this not a situation in which our reactor engineers should use all available channels open to them to contact directly their opposite numbers in the Soviet Union and make available all information on fighting fires in graphite-moderated reactors, whether it is asked for or not?

Mr. Eggar

First of all, of course I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we will be discussing the situation with the people when they return and we will get the maximum amount of information from those sources. I take careful note of the hon. Gentleman's point about radiological monitoring equipment. I will consider it further. As I said, we were able to get the equipment to Moscow quickly and we hope that it will be operating on Thursday evening or Friday. We will do what we can to make information and assistance available, but we must have the avenues opened up to us. It is not a case of our being deaf to them.

Mr. Stefan Terlezki (Cardiff, West)

I congratulate my hon. Friend and the Government on taking such swift action to evacuate British citizens, wherever they may be in the Ukraine or Minsk. It is a tragedy, and it is with sorrow that I speak in the House, having been born in the Ukraine. A month ago, after 44 years' absence, I visited the very' area where the tragedy occurred. I am sorry to say that, unless the Soviet Union co-operates fully with the West to assist it in finding the cause, nothing much will be achieved. How can the Soviet Union ask for help on the one hand, but, on the other, withhold all the information that is required? I sincerely hope that our Government will put all necessary scientific—not political—pressure on the Soviet Union, and Mr. Gorbachev in particular, to ensure that such a tragedy never occurs again, not only in the Soviet Union but anywhere else in the world.

Mr. Eggar

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments, particularly because he has such great personal experience of and personal feeling for the Ukraine. I agree with my hon. Friend. It is all very well to ask for a dialogue from us, but there has to be information coming from the Soviet Union. I can assure the House again that we shall give what assistance we can as soon as we see an avenue through which to give it.

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)

The Minister rightly said that he has issued warnings to British people visiting north Poland. Has he warned anyone else? Are there any other preparations made for evacuation? What is the hon. Gentleman's information about the movement of the radioactive cloud? Where is it expected to move to and settle, and is it moving in this direction?

Mr. Eggar

The advice that I gave in my statement referred to north-east Poland rather than north Poland. One of the reasons why, this morning, we established a group of experts to advise us on an hourly basis as to exactly what our advice to British citizens should be, was that we needed to know, among other things, the direction of the wind, to make it clear where the danger was likely to be. At the present moment, there is no danger in this country. We are monitoring radioactivity levels, but there has been no increase above the normal levels.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

Is there any evidence that there was even a small-scale nuclear explosion, and even if the whole of one of the reactors were to burn out—[HON. MEMBERS: "Evacuation.") All right. Evacuation. There is great danger from the radiation which has come out of the plant. Can my hon. Friend tell the House, assuming that the whole reactor burnt out, how much radiation would be there, and how it would compare with the radiation from a nuclear bomb?

Mr. Speaker

That was very wide.

Mr. Eggar

I thank my hon. Friend for that creative question. In accordance with Mr. Speaker's wishes, I shall not comment in detail on his points.

Mr. Terry Lewis (Worsley)

The whole House and the country will appreciate the speed with which the Foreign Office and the embassy in Moscow have moved on the evacuation and advice to those with immediatly pending travel. May I take the Minister in another direction and remind him that this summer, many thousands of tourists, myself included, will hope to go to Minsk and Kiev? [HON MEMBERS: "Freebie."] When the yobboes on the Conservative Benches have settled down, I shall press on with my question on this serious subject. Will the situation be monitored? What advice will be given to people who are intending to travel in the medium and longer term?

Mr. Eggar

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks about the Foreign Office. I can assure him that we shall continue to monitor the situation not only in Minsk and Kiev, but in other areas of the western Soviet Union. We shall advise travellers accordingly. Again, our job would be made much easier if the Soviet Union made available more information.

Mr. Kenneth Warren (Hastings and Rye)

Will my hon. Friend make it clear to the Soviet ambassador that, as one of those who is going to the Soviet Union next month under the leadership of Lord Whitelaw, on the Inter-Parliamentary Union delegation—[Laughter.] This is no laughing matter. I am sure that all of us would express real concern—

Mr. Peter Bruinvels (Leicester, East)

Cancel the visit.

Mr. Warren

I do not think that this is at all funny. Many millions of Soviet people are now exposed to radiation, which we would not wish on any citizens in the world. I hope that that will be conveyed to the Soviet ambassador in the United Kingdom. During the discussion would it be possible to ask him if he would accept British charter aircraft to carry out the evacuation speedily, and whether he would be so kind as to inform his Government that if they would only tell us all the grades of fallout from that plant, especially in view of the worry about the plutonium weapon-grade material which is produced there, we could probably render assistance to the Soviet people, which we are all eager to do?

Mr. Eggar

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend's last point. We anticipate that the evacuation from Moscow will take place with charter aircraft. We are considering what we can do direct into Kiev, should it not be possible to make bookings on normal transport in the near future.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

May I express a minority opinion? What purpose is served by the House of Commons, at this time of acute crisis, lecturing worried people, as the Soviet leadership must be, on secrecy? Will the Minister reflect that in 1957—this has now emerged under the 30-year rule—when there was a graphite fire at Windscale, his Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, decided not even to tell the Irish? As my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell, South (Dr. Bray) said, are we not more likely to create the conditions for our experts to do something about it if we shut up about secrecy—that goes for the Minister's Front Bench as much as for mine—than if we lecture the Russians on secrecy? Now is the time for help, not hindrance.

Mr. Eggar

I must say to the hon. Gentleman that our primary concern must be for the safety of British citizens. If we do not have the information on which to advise them, how can we be expected to look after their safety?

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Crawley)

I congratulate my hon. Friend and his Department on the speedy and efficient way in which the matter has been carried out. Will he assure the House that he will ask the Prime Minister to express to the Soviet ambassador this afternoon the wholehearted contempt of the House for the way in which the Soviet Union has behaved towards its neighbours in not informing them of the exact position?

Mr. Eggar

I am sure that the Soviet ambassador will take note of my hon. Friend's point.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

If the Soviet authority took into its confidence not only the international community but its own people, would not one of the virtues be that it would dampen the rumours and speculations? Has the Minister seen the headlines in some newspapers, claiming that there are up to 2,000 victims? Would it not be useful if the Russian ambassador were told that while the British people have every possible sympathy with the Russian people over what has happened, they find it extremely difficult to understand—without using the same words as the hon. Member for Crawley (Mr. Soames)—why the full truth is not being told?

Mr. Eggar

I am sure that the Soviet embassy will take that point when it reads the Official Report of our discussions this afternoon.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Berkshire, East)

Is not the most significant aspect of this tragic affair the woeful lack of information coming from the Soviet Union? Would my hon. Friend be surprised if some people with an insight into the affairs of the Soviet Union in the light of these events were to feel that there has been a woeful disregard for life there?

Mr. Eggar

My hon. Friend is absolutely correct.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Cromarty and Skye)

On behalf of the Munro family in my constituency, whose daughter Catriona was one of the student party at Minsk, may I thank the Minister, the private office and the representatives of the Government in the Soviet Union for the first-class help and attention which they gave the families? They have done much to alleviate the obvious concern and distress of the family at home in the Highlands of Scotland. Regarding the travel arrangements, is it intended that the party at Minsk will in all likelihood fly from Moscow tomorrow and arrive at Heathrow tomorrow evening?

Mr. Eggar:

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks, and I shall see that they are passed on. We understand that on present schedule the party at Minsk is due to arrive at Heathrow tomorrow evening.

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)

As this is a world problem, will the Government raise through the United Nations the need for the Soviet Union to give the fullest information to the United Nations' affiliate—the International Atomic Energy Agency?

Mr. Eggar

That is a point that we shall want to consider. Our immediate concern is to get the necessary information for us to advise our citizens appropriately.

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)

Reverting to an earlier answer about medical tests on students and other evacuees returning in the near future—which I welcome—will the Minister also give an assurance that those who, for one reason or another, are delayed for several weeks, and do not return to the United Kingdom for one or even two months will receive the same medical screening and assistance when they return? Will he persuade his hon. Friends that some of our medical expertise should be issued to the Ukraine Supreme Soviet and the other local hospitals in the affected areas?

Mr. Eggar

We are keeping medical screening under constant review. Obviously, what we do in future will depend greatly on the results of the screening of the first groups to return. Obviously, if medical assistance is requested, we shall make it available.

Mr. Neil Thorne (Ilford, South)

In facilitating the evacuation of British personnel, can my hon. Friend comment on the effectiveness of the Soviet civil defence and civil defence and protection procedures and say whether they are in any way inhibited by any bogus nuclear-free zone?

Mr. Eggar

I am afraid that I do not have information on that area.

Mr. Harry Ewing (Falkirk, East)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I would rather take the point of order after the application under Standing Order No. 10, as there is also another point of order.

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