HL Deb 21 April 1964 vol 257 cc676-9

3.32 p.m.


My Lords, perhaps I may now repeat the second statement that my right honourable friend is making in another place, on the subject of fissile material. The statement reads as follows: " Her Majesty's Government welcome the announcements by President Johnson and by Mr. Khrushchev that their Governments are reducing their planned production of fissile materials for weapons purposes. I believe that the public announcement of these reductions will do much to foster that confidence which is essential if we are to build on the achievement of the Test Ban Treaty.

" Production of fissile material in the United Kingdom has of course always been on a very much smaller scale than in the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. For their part, as was explained in the recently published White Paper on Defence, Her Majesty's Government have already adjusted their supplies of fissile material to the minimum necessary to maintain our independent nuclear deterrent and to meet all our defence requirements for the foreseeable future.

" Military plutonium production is being gradually terminated. The civil reactors which have been and are being brought into service in this country are part of the United Kingdom programme for electric power generation or for research and development of new techniques in the use of atomic energy for peaceful purposes. By the nature of their operations these reactors produce plutonium. Part of this will be used for civil purposes in the United Kingdom and part will be sent to the United States under an agreement of which Parliament was informed on November 19, 1962, whereby U.235 is supplied in exchange by the United States Government. Our plans do not envisage the use of any of the plutonium produced by our civil reactors in the United Kingdom weapons programme and I am informed by the United States Government that they have no intention of using the plutonium received from us for weapons purposes.

" Thus, by the policies which we have adopted and are continuing to pursue the United Kingdom is contributing fully to the initiative that President Johnson and Mr. Khrushchev are now taking."


My Lords, we are grateful to the Leader of the House, again, for the statement he has repeated. I think we shall all agree that these decisions to cut off the production of fissile material for military purposes is a step in the right direction. But it has not to be forgotten, of course, that these are unilateral decisions; they are not part of an agreement. Therefore they could be changed by any Government at its own will, and there is no provision, so far as I can see, for supervision or inspection. Nevertheless, these decisions should further improve the international atmosphere and also help to promote the partial détente between East and West. To that extent it is also a very good thing.

I noticed that Mr. Khrushchev, in his statement, has indicated that the surplus will be turned over to peaceful uses, and he mentions industry, agriculture, medicine and other fields. I take it that in the West—in the United States and in this country—the turnover to peaceful use will be in somewhat similar directions. I was also interested in reading that in America they expect in the fourth year, 1968, to have a financial saving of £11 million a year. I wonder whether the Leader of the House can tell us whether there is any financial saving arising out of the decision taken by Her Majesty's Government last year.

Then, finally, I should like to ask the Leader of the House whether it is the Government's view that this new development will have a favourable influence on the efforts that are being made to extend the Test Ban Agreement to cover underground tests. Also, as all the countries concerned have taken their decisions satisfied that they will have no ill-effect on the present balance of nuclear power, will this development facilitate an agreement to freeze the production of nuclear vehicles? After all, my Lords, all the steps that have been taken so far, whether unilaterally or by agreement, have not been in the field of actual disarmament, and I think the Leader of the House would agree with me that, in fact, the most urgent problem before the world to-day is to get action taken in the field of real disarmament.


My Lords, I think I entirely agree with what the noble Lord opposite has said. I think that this is a small but useful agreement. I very much hope with him that it may lead to an extension of the nuclear Test Ban Treaty on underground explosions, and also, perhaps, make it more possible to freeze production of nuclear vehicles. But, of course, this means an agreement both with the United States and with the Russians, and it depends, perhaps, more on the Russians than anybody else.

The noble Lord asked me about the peaceful uses of plutonium. I believe some research is being carried on at the present time on this subject, and no doubt as more is known there may be good civil uses to which it may be put. As regards the financial saving, I am afraid I cannot give the noble Lord the figures, but of course there will be a financial saving by the shutting down of Capenhurst from the production of the U.235 military uranium.


My Lords, may I ask the Leader of the House whether this decision is going to have any serious or noticeable economic effects? I should have thought there was likely to be quite a serious problem in regard to the disposal of surplus plutonium. I do not know that we should be too optimistic about its economic application, and I should like to ask the noble Lord how far this may affect any sales of plutonium which are being made to the United States. Secondly, may I ask the noble Lord whether this action will have any effect on the price of enriched uranium and, therefore, any direct effect on our nuclear power pro- gramme and on the design of the reactors? Also, will this be favourable or unfavourable to the development of the Magnox reactor, and shall we have to consider more seriously other types?


My Lords, with regard to the noble Lord's first question, as he knows, we are exchanging the plutonium with the United States on a Barter Agreement under which we exchange plutonium for U.235, and I do not think that this will be at all altered by this decision. As I said in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Henderson, I think some research is being carried out on the civil uses of plutonium, but I do not think I can go any further this afternoon. With regard to the noble Lord's second question, I must confess that he is leading me into paths with which I am not very familiar. I should like, if I may, to find out the answer to that question, and let the noble Lord know, or let the House know, if he would prefer it, because I do not think I could answer it "off the cuff".


My Lords, while we welcome most heartily this announcement of the intention by President Johnson and Mr. Khrushchev, which must, I think, mean a reduction in tension in the world, may I ask whether it is not possible for Her Majesty's Government to make some reduction in the amount of fissile material that they make? Otherwise, will it not look to the world at large as if we are dragging our feet, and will that not give a very bad impression to the world at large of the intentions of this country?


Of course, the reverse of that is true, my Lords. We reduced our production of fissile material before anybody else. As I said in the original statement, we are maintaining production sufficient only to maintain our independent nuclear deterrent and to meet all our defence requirements in the conceivable future. So I think that really we led the way.

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