HL Deb 30 April 1986 vol 474 cc267-72

3.41 p.m.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Young)

My Lords, with the leave of the House I shall now repeat a Statement on the evacuation of British subjects following the nuclear accident at Chernobyl in the Soviet Union which is being made in another place by my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Mr. Eggar. The Statement is as follows:

"Following indications from countries bordering the Soviet Union the Soviet authorities announced on 28th April that there had been an accident at the nuclear reactor in Chernobyl. This was a 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 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 this morning. Despite 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 evacuate British citizens. 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 are at risk.

"Our Embassy is in continuing contact with the Soviet authorities about the practical arrangements for evacuation. That will probably mean the students from Kiev and Minsk travelling to Moscow for evacuation from there. Our Ambassador has been told that the Soviet authorities will help. My right honourable 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 and advise Ministers on appropriate action.

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

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement and we welcome the action taken by the British Embassy to expedite the students' departure. Can she say whether there are any other British subjects apart from students and teachers in the Kiev and Minsk areas and whether contact has been made with them? Can she also say whether assistance has been given to the students and the teachers in respect of their return fares to this country? We also welcome the action described in the Statement which has been taken in other countries and especially in Poland. Has the noble Baroness any idea how many British subjects are involved there and in neighbouring countries that may be affected by the accident?

May we also ask whether Her Majesty's Government have offered assistance and technical advice to the Soviet Government on this issue, and what, if anything, has been the response to that? We regret this tragic accident and send our sympathies to the people who have been affected, but we must again deplore the failure of the Soviet Government to inform the world of this disaster, especially that part of the world which is affected by the tragedy, and to inform the world immediately so that other countries could take necessary action? Will Her Majesty's Government therefore encourage as soon as possible an exchange of views on the disaster between our country and our partners in the European Community, many of which are affected by it, and the Soviet Union, and also on its long-term implications? Is that not an urgent necessity now?

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, from these Benches we welcome the Statement made by the noble Baroness this afternoon. We join the Leader of the Opposition in deploring the failure of the Soviet Government to give details, particularly since human life is at stake. I am not talking simply about British lives, but about the lives of others, including the Russians in the vicinity who have obviously been endangered by this explosion.

May I ask the Government whether they will refrain from any propaganda advantage that might be derived from the disaster, though I am not suggesting that they have not refrained so far? In instructing the British Embassy to offer all possible help, including repatriation, will the cost of the fares of students who have been invited to return to this country be met? I heard a young student on the radio this morning say that so far no offer of assistance with the return fare was available. I hope that that will be considered as part of the assistance which is going to be given by the Embassy.

I very much welcome the offer of technical help by Her Majesty's Government and by the American Government. I should be glad if the Minister will confirm this. May I suggest to him that out of tragedy sometimes comes good? Out of this tragedy there may emerge opportunities for co-operation in establishing international standards of safety in nuclear production. Can I ask the Government whether in the circumstances they are prepared to take the initiative in trying to organise international safety standards for nuclear energy which may be accepted by all countries producing energy in this way? The experience of the last war suggests that countries of different ideological backgrounds can work together in the face of tragedy and in case of human need. In this case we must not minimise the extent of the tragedy that has taken place.

Baroness Young

My Lords, I thank the noble Lords, Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos and Lord Taylor of Gryfe, for their responses to this Statement. I think we would all join, as the Statement makes clear, in deploring the failure of the Soviet Union to give us the necessary information, not only of course in their own country but particularly in Europe and in the world as a whole.

Both noble Lords asked me several specific questions and both raised the point about the students. The students in Minsk will travel on their revalidated air tickets from Moscow to London under arrangements being made by the British Council and our embassy in Moscow. Those students in Kiev are on a visit organised by Progressive Tours Limited and we understand that the company is making similar arrangements for their return to London. The refunding of costs is something to he taken up in the first place with the tour operator and the sponsors; but our main concern at this stage must be the safety of the students and seeing that they can travel home.

The noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, asked about other British subjects in Kiev. We believe there are a number of short-term visitors both in Minsk and in Kiev, and perhaps also in neighbouring areas in Poland. Of course, we have no firm details of that. They will be advised via the BBC's overseas services what would be best for them. However, we believe that for safety's sake it is right to move our people out of Kiev and Minsk, which means an area of about 200 miles radius from Chernobyl. So far as British citizens in Poland are concerned, we believe they should follow the advice that is provided by the Polish Government, with whom our embassy is in close contact.

Both noble Lords asked about assistance to the Soviet Union. I repeat what my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has said and will make clear to the Soviet ambassador today, as our ambassador has already made clear to the Russians, that any technical assistance and advice needed will be supplied.

The noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, spoke of the need for an exchange of views between the United Kingdom and the European Community on this disaster and its long-term implications. That is certainly a point which I shall pass on to my right honourable and learned friend the Foreign Secretary. As, regards the opportunities for co-operation, which was the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, I would only say to him that taking any initiative means that everybody has to co-operate in giving the information. I take note of the point he has raised on this matter.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that, with the present westerly winds over these islands, there is no risk of radiation from this explosion affecting this country? Can she also confirm that if the Soviet Government had promptly informed Her Majesty's Government of this disaster on the day of the disaster it would have been possible to extricate British subjects from the area of radiation earlier than it has proved possible to do now?

Baroness Young

My Lords, the answer to the first question about advice to people in Britain is that no special precautions are necessary since radiation levels are normal; but, as I said in the Statement, we are constantly monitoring the situation. On the second point regarding early information, I can only think that must be the case and that, as would have occurred in our own country or in any of the Western countries, the fullest information would have been given immediately.

The Earl of Halsbury

My Lords, Chernobyl means in Russian "black burrow". Will the Government exercise the maximum diplomatic pressure on the Soviets to come out of their black burrow into the light of day and tell us what is going on? There are nine other of these stations potentially capable of exploding in this way. What are they going to do about them to safeguard the world from further incidents of this kind and when are they going to abandon their peasant mentality—sly, suspicious, secretive—and tell us the truth? We already have an international organisation. Why do they not join in?

Lord Parry

My Lords, before the noble Baroness rises to answer the question, does the House accept that we should surely be concentrating on the fact that it appears that a major human tragedy has taken place and that we should be addressing our feelings to that and not to the politics of the situation?

Baroness Young

My Lords, as the Statement makes quite clear, there has obviously been a very serious nuclear accident. I am sure the whole House would agree that what we need to have is the fullest possible information from the Soviet Union about what has happened. Our ambassador in Moscow is under very detailed instructions to find out as fully as he can what has happened. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister is seeing the Russian ambassador this afternoon and will be not only offering assistance to him but seeking to gain the fullest information that we can get. I think that is the most important matter at the present time. We must all hope very much that such an appalling accident does not happen again; but certainly getting the information on the present one would be a help.

Lord Harmar-Nicholls

My Lords, as this incident is so important and its effects are likely to last for a long time, is there not a risk in some of the reactions we have heard in the House this afternoon of our giving the appearance of national feelings, as distinct from examining the matter constructively? Apart from the fact that Sweden and neighbouring countries ought to have been warned immediately the accident happened so that precautions could be taken, are we not perhaps being a little too precipitate in suggesting that Russia is not giving all the facts as they are known?

Is it not reasonable to believe that in circumstances as technical as this, they would want time to find out what the facts are before they give them out and not merely attempt to satisfy people by guesswork? It may well be that if we wait we shall get the true facts, and that will be helpful to everybody. But if in the meantime we give the impression of having a doubt about the truthfulness of the facts when they do come it may, as a consequence, not be in the best interests of anybody at all.

Baroness Young

My Lords, I do not think there is any question of doubting the facts when they come. I think our concern has been that we have not had the facts. As the Statement makes clear, the Soviet authorities announced on 28th April that there had been an accident. That was the day after radioactivity had first been monitored in Scandinavia. Therefore there is a presupposition that the accident happened earlier than that, and it is the time-lag that has been of concern. What we now want to have are the fullest possible facts about the situation.

Lord Morris

My Lords, may I ask my noble friend whether she feels it is enough just to hope that this type of accident will not happen again? Having a little bit of experience of Russian-designed chemical plants, at any rate, I have a great fear that it may well happen again, bearing in mind the age and type of design of the plants I understand they have in Russia. I think that there is an appalling likelihood of its happening again and I do not think it is good enough just to hope that it does not.

Baroness Young

My Lords, I recognise that this is a very serious accident and I would not wish anything that I have said in any way to appear to understimate the seriousness of it. The fact is that Chernobyl is unlike any existing or planned reactors in the United Kingdom, and the United Kingdom nuclear authorities rejected its design many years ago as intrinsically unsuitable. As that is a matter for the Soviet Union, we must—I use the verb again—hope that with its co-operation such an accident will not happen again.

Lord Caccia

My Lords, would it be possible to have published the photographs that have been taken of the incident so that we can have some further information which is really already available?

Baroness Young

Yes, my Lords, I note the point that the noble Lord has made; I see the point of that.