HL Deb 03 February 1981 vol 416 cc1034-6

2.40 p.m.

Lord Brockway

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether new plant is to be built at the Atomic Weapons Research station at Aldermaston to process plutonium for nuclear weapons; when it will be completed; what it will cost; and whether part of its purpose is to serve warheads for the Trident nuclear missile.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Viscount Trenchard)

My Lords, a new building will be constructed at the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston to replace existing facilities for processing nuclear materials. It is hoped that it will be completed in the late 1980s. Contracts have not yet been let and it has been the practice of successive Governments not to disclose detailed costs related to the defence nuclear programme. The new facility is part of the continuing programme of replacement and improvement of the existing but ageing capital facilities at Aldermaston, needed to maintain the effectiveness of the British nuclear deterrent, including Trident.

Lord Brockway

My Lords, may I ask the Minister whether it is not strange that Parliament should not have been informed of this expansion of defence equipment, and that we should learn about it only by the notification to the Berks. County Council and two letters to Members of Parliament? May I ask, further, whether it is not unwise to make this commitment of millions of pounds for the provision of Trident when it is very uncertain, indeed improbable, whether the Government at the time of installation will be in favour of it? Has the noble Viscount noticed that, in the last public opinion poll in November, 59 per cent. of our population were opposed to the Trident?

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, I cannot answer the noble Lord as to exactly when the Government released this news. I ought to be able to and I shall write to the noble Lord to tell him. I think it happened before my day. In relation to the changing situation so far as public opinion is concerned, the public opinion polls have been studied and many different answers to hypothetical questions were given. Her Majesty's Government are clear that the British people, properly faced with the facts and not, if I may say so, with a degree of wishful thinking which is sometimes placed before them, will react to the absolute need to keep this country strong in every relevant respect.

Lord Paget of Northampton

My Lords, without wishing in any way to be controversial, may I ask if there is any doubt at all but that on "D1" of nuclear war, Aldermaston would disappear? In the light of that, is it really wise to expand Aldermaston instead of transferring its production to somewhere on the other side of the world where it would have a better chance of a slightly longer survival?

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, I do not think the noble Lord, even within the terms of his tacit assumptions, is correct; the production of the necessary material for nuclear weapons would take place before a nuclear war. But the whole purpose of our possession of nuclear weapons, within an alliance and particularly with the United States, is to ensure that no war takes place and furthermore that we cannot be coerced to surrender because we do not have those facilities.

Lord Gisborough

My Lords, while in no way questioning the need for Trident, may I ask the Minister to say what is the estimate of the life of this new plant and what will be the cost and method of de-commissioning at present-day prices and technology? Further, does he think it will be possible for men to work in the de-commissioning process and, if so, what will be done with the plant?

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, the answer to the first part of my noble friend's supplementary is that we anticipate that these facilities, which is a new building within a compound where existing facilities con tinue, will still be in major operation well into the next century. The answer to the second detailed question is that quite obviously it is impossible to estimate in current-day prices what the cost of de-commissioning would be if indeed de-commissioning took place. The fact that de-commissioning can be a real problem has been well understood. The new plant is being designed in a way in which previous plants in this and other countries have not been designed—to make cleaning and de-commissioning much easier—and experience and research on the methods of cleaning and de-commissioning will continue to accumulate over the rest of this century.

Lord Brockway

My Lords, arising from the Minister's earlier reply, may I ask whether he is aware of the strength of the opposition to this proposal?—in the Labour Party, not only Michael Foot but Denis Healey; in the Social Democrats, Bill Rodgers; the Liberal Party; and the Scottish and Welsh National Parties. Is it not unwise to be committing millions of pounds to a project which will be dismantled when they come to office?

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, I do not think I can add to the answers I have already given. I believe the majority of experts who have a real knowledge both of defence strategies and the alternatives in these areas, are of a mind which fully supports the policy on which Her Majesty's Government are continuing. So far as future Governments are concerned, I believe we shall have satisfactory Governments who will put the security of the nation above all else.

Lord Gridley

My Lords, would it not be a crime, and a crime on the part of any Government, to leave this country and ourselves incapable of defending ourselves with adequate and competent weapons, whatever Government were in power?

Viscount Trenchard

We agree, my Lords.