Skip to main content

Atomic Energy

Volume 415: debated on Tuesday 30 October 1945

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

9.1 p.m.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[ Mr. Mathers.]

I hope the House will forgive me if I use notes on this occasion, as it is important that nothing is said which ought notto go beyond the reach of this House. Every hon. Member of this House must be deeply conscious of his responsibility in helping to guide our policy on atomic energy, not only for the benefit of our own people but for the benefit of all peoples all over the world. Every hon. Member must also pray that the visit of the Prime Minister will be crowned with success. Responsibility on our part is, however, dependent upon knowledge of the essential facts. A close examination of the Smyth Report and the White Paper, together with consultations with some British scientists, convinced me that there is need for far greater information, before this House and the public, than is at present available.

It is apparent from these reports that the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Woodford (Mr. Churchill) and the late and greatly beloved President of the United States came together, in deadly secrecy, to an agreement in Quebec in September, 1943, on this subject of atomic energy. It is also apparent that the terms of this agreement left the development of the peace-time use of atomic energy by this country very much to the discretion of the President of the United States. While fully agreeing with the necessity for secrecy while the war was on, and while in no way desiring to criticise the circumstances in which this agreement was concluded, I would ask the right hon. Gentleman the Prime Minister to bring this agreement into the light of day at the earliest possible moment, so that we may decide whether it should be ratified for the future or not.

Assuming that this agreement is modified during the discussions now about to proceed, it would be unnecessary for anything further to be said, but it is vitally important that, at the earliest possible moment, we should know in this country that we can go ahead, in conjunction with other nations in the world, to develop atomic energy for the proper purposes for which Lord Rutherford and British and American scientists desired it to be developed—for the benefit of all mankind, and also to lighten the load of drudgery upon the working men and women of this world. There seems to be much confusion to-day as to whether or not our British scientists are in full possession of the so-called secret of the atomic bomb.

Contrary to what President Truman may have led some people to suppose, our scientists are, in fact, in possession of every detail of manufacture, every scientific secret—in short the whole technical "know-how" as to the production of the atomic bomb made from Uranium 235, which killed 125,000 people when it was dropped at Hiroshima. In actual fact, the politicians are not able to speak with full authority upon this subject. American scientists have exchanged more scientific information with British scientists about what is happening in the State of Washington than President Truman supposes, and unless a progressive attitude is adopted, in place of our present attitude, I believe that the scientists both of Britain and America, might themselves take independent action, and for my own part I would not blame them for so doing. What then is happening to-day in the United States of America? Only a tiny fraction of the enormous expenditure of capital, materials and labour is being devoted to the peace-time uses of atomic energy. Well over 90 per cent. of the effort goes to producing bigger and better bombs for an undefined purpose. I am perfectly certain that the President of the United States is absolutely sincere when he says that he regards the atomic bomb as a sacred trust, although I am aware that the peoples of the Far East and other peoples in this world find it a little difficult to reconcile his phraseology with the fact that we dropped first one atom bomb on Hiroshima without any previous warning, and, after that, dropped another one without any warning of any kind when it was obvious that the war against Japan was about to be over. I say that, not as a pacifist, but on the ground that we should recognise in what circumstances we come before the world, and in what circumstances we are stating our point of view to-day. Let us not imagine that we come as lily-white angels before the world, because we do not.

President Truman regards this as a sacred trust. Why then does he not concentrate on the cheap production of power through the release of atomic energy, in which case in a comparatively few years men would no longer have to go down into the belly of the earth to hew coal, oil could be out-dated, gigantic schemes of irrigation could make the desert blossom like the rose? Moreover, there is a tremendous medical side to the release of atomic energy. By it a radio active species of every chemical element can be prepared which would be of inestimable value in medicine, both for the purposes of research, for diagnosis and for therapy. If, by building bombs instead of by ending men's drudgery and by solving the secrets of nature, the President thinks that he is discharging a sacred trust, then he must be mistaking Lucifer for the Almighty.

The hon. Gentleman has quite rightly said "No, no."I am quite sure that the President is animated by the highest possible motives. I have the greatest possible affection for the American people and I remember everything they have done.

I said, "No, no"because I do not think it is within any precedent of this House, to make a comparison between the President of the United States and the Almighty.

The story becomes even more anxious when one inquires what firms are, in fact, managing plants on behalf of the American War Department that are now producing bigger and better bombs. Their names are indeed "names of fear, unpleasing to a Russian ear. "The enormous factories in the Stateof Washington are managed by the firm of Dupont which, as is well known, had agreements with Imperial Chemical Industries of this country and with I.G. Farben-industrie of Germany, agreements which provided for their revival after the war and which are quite reasonably regarded, in Russian quarters, as having been part of an encirclement policy directed against them. I am perfectly certain that every Member of this House and every reasonable American Congressman has not the slightest desire in any circumstances to say anything or to do anything which would involve us in conflict with the Soviet Union, but I am still making the point that we in this country holding, as we do hold to-day, the moral leadership of the world, must stand out before the peoples of the world, and must ourselves indicate quite clearly—and contrary to the impression now prevailing—that if, on the one hand, we are prepared as candid friends to tell the truth to Soviet Russia, we are prepared, also as candid friends, to tell the truth to the United States of America.

These interests which are now predominating against the wishes of the scientists, and of progressive opinion in the United States, as well as in this country, reek with the stale odour of reaction. We should disassociate ourselves at the earliest possible moment from these interests. We should associate ourselves with progressive opinion, and with the scientists who are unanimous that, at the earliest possible moment, we must get back to the peace-time exchange of scientific information so that, instead of behaving like insane men—wasting the whole of our substance upon the desire to kill one another—unless we can solve the great problem of utilising the information we have wrested from nature for the benefit of all human beings and not for their destruction. There is one fact of cardinal importance about the release of atomic energy: it should be in the possession of us all. It is quite impossible to exploit the peace-time usage of nuclear energy without being at the same time in the position to manufacture bombs. The release of atomic energy from uranium produces plutonium. The release of atomic energy from thorium produces uranium 233. Either uranium 233 or plutonium is the material from which atomic bombs are made.

So if we are not to turn our backs on the greatest scientific discovery of all times, which should be an instrument for the liberation of mankind, we must know that everywhere these inventions are being used, there is also the possibility of creating atomic bombs. The river of knowledge, like the majestic Oxus, "a foiled circuitous wanderer,"is bound ultimately to reach the sea. It might wind back on itself, but it could never be dammed and it could never be stopped. It is bound to go on. Nothing in the world, nothing politicians can do, will stop men everywhere from continuing to find out truths that are released by splitting the atom, and further scientific inventions now being discovered. The process is bound to go on. Nothing can stop it. We must decide, in consultation with our great Allies, how these scientific discoveries can be utilised for the benefit of mankind, and how they can be prevented from destroying the world.

Faced with these facts, I suggest that His Majesty's Government should immediately and openly urge internationalisation of research and production in relation to atomic energy, and the calling of a conference of scientists, as well as statesmen, to recommend to the United Nations the best system of international control of atomic energy which can be devised.

It being a quarter past Nine o'Clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[ Mr. Mathers.]

:The subject of international control of atomic energy is perhaps the main subject which confronts us to-day. There is no time to go into detail here, but there is, in fact, an instrument which detects the release of radioactive materials. This instrument can be, and has been, put on an aeroplane, and by facing downwards it is able to detect all factories so far in use for the release of atomic energy.

I am well aware that it is a simple matter to invent a device, or manufacture factories, in such a way that the scientific instrument to which I have referred will be unable to detect them. But if we get the benefit of all the scientists of the world and their knowledge, labour and experience, and concentrate on the vital task, in the interests of all humanity, of finding out how this invention can be controlled, there is no reason to suppose that they will completely fail. If we can succeed in persuading the nations of the world to agree to a system, whereby you can have scientists exchange information with scientists of other nations, you are going to know all about the scientists who know most about the release of atomic energy, and you may be able to go further, and get a situation in which we are enabled to have a man "poking about" in all these factories. The mere fact that there will be a man entitled to "poke about" in factories will have a collosal psychological effect upon every country.

It is the result of what I say that we ask the Prime Minister, quite openly, to abandon the doctrine of continuity of foreign policy; to abandon, altogether, the need for the kind of secret diplomacy we have had in the past; to abandon utterly, and reject utterly, the doctrine of the balance of power. I cannot believe, for one moment, that the right hon. Gentleman the Prime Minister or the Leader of the House accepts for one moment these conceptions of an outworn age.

I cannot conclude without some reference to the main matter which must be in our minds. Our gallant Russian Allies have fought with us during this war, and they have withstood what the right hon. Member for Woodford once called the equivalent of the total German armed strength. They have marched from the streets of shattered Stalingrad to the centre of Berlin itself. Are you going to allowa situation in which the Russians will be prevented from restoring their ravaged cities more quickly, or helped to increase the health of their own nation, because you will not give them, in peace time, secrets of atomic energy, which would assist them to perform1these necessary and vital tasks? This great Alliance between the Soviet Union, U.S.A. and Britain is the hope of the world to-day. If that hope perishes, there is little that we ourselves, or our children, or our children's children, if therebe such, can look forward to. In conclusion, I would say this: This is a matter not for one country alone. It is a matter for all mankind. It is a matter which affects us in our own most intimate arrangements; it affects us in all our family concerns, because assuming we fail to solve this, then it is of no use for us to be responsible for our children's education. We cannot even think for 10 or 20 years ahead and know that our plans are solid plans, and capable of fulfilment.

We must think of this on the highest possible level. This country has always held in the past, or rather for a long period, the moral leadership of the world. I ask the Government to make sure that we continue to hold the moral leadership of the world, that we speak for men everywhere to see that this discovery is used for peace-time purposes and not for wartime purposes. I would ask my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, when he travels over to the United States, to remember the words that may well be of high significance to-day, words which breathe the spirit of man, the essential desire for goodness that lies in all our hearts, the desire for world unity which is there in Soviet Russia, in the United States and all over India and China, just as it is in our hearts, and bring that to fruition. I mean the last words written by Emily Bronte:
"There is not room for death,
Nor Atom that His might could render void.
Thou, Thou art being and breath.
And what Thou art can never be destroyed."

9.21 p.m.

After the eloquent speech of the hon. and gallant Member for King's Norton (Captain Blackburn), to whom the House is greatly indebted for the opportunity of having this Debate this evening, I wish in a very few moments to express the earnest hope that thePrime Minister and his colleagues will secure, in the forthcoming discussions, a supplement to the President's policy which will cover an adequate policy for a later term beyond the short period in which a monopoly of some part of this secret may be enjoyed. For if the declaration stands alone without such a supplement, I think the danger of a competitive race for this new weapon, and a grave worsening of international relations in the process, is obvious to all. It is very notable, and I think very welcome, that scientists are now showing a more personal and collective sense of responsibility for the political consequences of this discovery than has ever been shown with regard to any scientific discovery in the past. The expression of this is perhapsless in this country because of the existence of the Advisory Committee which reports in private, but I believe that the British scientists engaged agree in this matter completely with the American scientists who have expressed their views more freely. The "Economist" has summarised these views as being, and I will quote from this summary:

They seek to explode what they consider to be the myth of secrecy. They seek to convince the law-makers and the public that there are no known counter-measures. They urge, almost unanimously, that some form of international control of the bomb and development of atomic energy should be instituted. The loss of some degree of national sovereignty, they say, is a small price to pay for survival."
Lastly, Dr. Urey, of Chicago, says:
"The peace-time applications of atomic energy, or, in fact, of everything else, are of no importance whatever unless the danger of atomic bombs is banished from the world."
I would only add a recent statement by Professor Einstein. He says, with a certain scientific detachment, and with such optimism as the facts permit, that he does not consider that an atomic war will destroy civilisation. He says that perhaps two-thirds of the world's population will be killed, but that enough books and men will be left to start again. As even that optimistic view, however, does not offer a very cheerful prospect, he adds that he considers it essential that the American Government should commit the secret of the bomb to a World Government. That is advice which I believe coincides with the advice of the American scientists whom I have just quoted. What concrete action should we hope should now be taken? I venture to repeat the suggestion I have made elsewhere publicly to this effect: I believe it would be wise for America, Great Britain and Canada to decide in the forthcoming discussions to make an immediate offer to entrust the secret to the Security Council, on condi- tion that each country on the Council) including those making the offer, should give the Council effective rights of inspection in their territories, the Council being instructed, by an irrevocable decision, to require the destruction of any bomb-producing factories except—if there is an exception—on the Council's own territory, suitably situated and adequately guarded by international forces.

Would the right hon. Gentleman also include in his conditions the withdrawal of the right of veto?

That is what I mean by putting in the words "by an irrevocable decision"which would prevent a future use of the veto for this purpose. The essence of this proposal is not so much the use merely of the secret as a bargaining weapon, but the immediate, full and public declaration by the countries now enjoying a temporary advantage of their willingness to sacrifice so much of their sovereignty as full publicity and international inspection and control involves. If this is to have a chance, however, immediate action is required.

I do not wish to detain the House any longer, but I commend this proposal, because I believe that something as drastic as this is wanted and that nothing less will suffice. In support of that I would only refer to my right hon. Friend the Senior Member for the Scottish Universities (Sir J. Anderson), the Chairman of the Advisory Committee, who said a few weeks ago:
"This development calls for no less than a complete readjustment of all international relations and the framing of a new order of society."
"If there is delay," he added, "incalculable mischief may be done."

9.27 p.m.

:The hon. Members who have raised this very important and vital subject may be sure that the observations which my hon. and gallant Friendon this side and the right hon. Gentleman on the other side below the Gangway have made, will be reported to the Prime Minister and that he will keep them in mind together with the many observations that have been made elsewhere about this startling and, in many respects, disturbing, though also, by virtue of its economic possibilities, encouraging discovery. These are, however, only possibilities so far. We canot yet be sure about them. The certainty is that here is a highly explosive weapon, a new factor, not only in the art of war, if the art of war is to continue, and if you can call that sort of thing an art, but in international politics and in the organisation of international peace. All the disturbing considerations to which many people have drawn attention will certainly be kept in mind by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in the forthcoming conversations which he is to have in the United States of America.

It is clear, however, in the first place, that in an Adjournment Debate the Government could not make a full statement on the matter, even if we were in a position to do so. Secondly, as I think will be appreciated by the House generally, including my hon. and gallant Friend and the right hon. Gentleman who have spoken, it would not bewise nor helpful if, just before the Prime Minister was going to visit the United States to confer with the President, the Government were to seek to make comprehensive statements in the House. This is not the last occasion on which this matter will be discussed, and I think the House will agree that when my right hon. Friend goes to visit the President of the United States, apart from any general observations which have been made and which I may make to-night, the less he is bound by any specific or detailed observations that have been published on the matter, the more useful those important and vital conversations will be.

It is the case that our own fortunes in this matter are bound up with those of the United States of America. Our work on the subject has been in the closest possible consultation with the United States, as was made clear by my hon. Friend in his opening observations, and also by the Leader of the Opposition, after the first atomic bomb had been dropped upon Japan. From the beginning this country has made an extremely important contribution to research on the subject of atomic energy, and our scientists, as well as the scientists of the United States, have played a very great part in the development of this vast and significant discovery. But the war and its stresses made many other demands upon our economy. Throughout the course of the war we were, of course, subject to bombing attacks by the enemy. Consequently, it was agreed that, as the United States had space and vast resources and was at a safe distance from the enemy, it was desirable that the physical work involved should take place in the United States. The United States made an enormous contribution, but that must not lead us to under-estimate the contribution which British scientific knowledge made. Indeed there was, I think, a wise division of resources, energy and research, which went to the large-scale realisation of the project. We gave all the help we could by the contribution of first-class scientific ability.

Now that the war is over, it is naturally the intention and desire of His Majesty's Government to make plans for the development of the process in this country. We must know all we can about it, certainly in so far as there are potential economic uses for atomic energy of value to our country. To my mind it is undesirable that Britain should be behind in knowledge of the subject and its potentialities. Therefore His Majesty's Government considered, as did our predecessors, what was the best way in which to handle this matter. The first step taken by this Government was to set up a strong and highly competent Advisory Committee under the chairmanship of the right hon. Member for the Scottish Universities (Sir J. Anderson).

I think the House, irrespective of party, would agree that, in view of his general qualifications, the choice of the right hon. Gentleman was an admirable one for the Chairman of the Advisory Committee. He has great administrative knowledge and he has considerable scientific knowledge. He has mixed with scientific people, which in itself is important, because if one is to work with scientists it is a good thing to understand them, just as, if you wish to work with politicians, it is as well to understand them. I think it was an excellent choice, and it was good that he was able to take on the position. I should like to assure my hon. Friend who opened the discussion that the Advisory Committee includes a number of eminent scientists.

Would my right hon. Friend forgive me for a moment? Is he aware that of the eminent scientists on the Committee, there is only one really up-to-date nuclear physicist and that is Sir James Chadwick, and that he spends most of his time in the United States?

In the short time at my disposalI would not like to argue the respective merits of the scientists who are on the Committee and those who are not. We took advice and we made the best choice we could on the information before us. At any rate, we were determined that the scientific elementshould have a proper place on the Committee. It not only includes scientists. It also includes representatives of various State Departments by having on the Committee senior officers concerned with the administrative aspects. Altogether, I think, we havea Committee which is high-powered and competent, and which I can assure the House already has given most valuable advice to His Majesty's Government.

It is perfectly clear that the policy cannot afford to be dealt with by the Government in a cursory way. It cannot be dealt with at a low level. It must be dealt with at the higher level of Governmental consideration. Its foreign policy aspects and its military potentialities are really terrific, as we all know, and I freely confess, as everybody else does, and as is obvious from the speeches of my hon. and gallant Friend and the right hon. Gentleman, that it is giving us all a very bad headache. This discovery, which exceeds anything hitherto in destructive power, is one that presents us with some first-class problems of international organisation, world politics, foreign policy, and security organisation, and if we are not able to make up our minds as to the way out of it in five minutes, I do not think anybody can blame us. It is better to think carefully and with purpose, as I think everybody is trying to do about it, to arrive at the right solution as to how to handle it, than it is to rush into things and possibly make errors.

At any rate, it has presented this Government, and I am sure all the Governments of the world, with a first-class headache. Either we have to think out policies and ways whereby this new invention, instead of being what it can very well become, a most dangerous menace to the security of every nation on the earth and, indeed, possibly a menace even to an international security organisation itself, can be linked up with foreign policy, and with the organisation of security, or we must take some steps whereby nobody is likely to use it. It is easier to say that than to do it. It is easier to proclaim the disiderata than the means and ways by which they shall be done. I can only say that the whole problem has the attention of His Majesty's Government at the very highest level in its policy aspects. The Ministry of Supply are dealing with it as a physical problem of supply and production. The policy of it is being dealt with at the very highest level of Government, and it will remain there. Let us hope that we shall be able to make a helpful contribution and observations about it. In any case, it was inevitable that the first discussions must start between this country and the United States, and everybody agrees, I think, that it is a good thing that the Prime Minister is to have a man to man talk with the President of the United States in the hope that wisdom and enlightenment and helpful policies will come out of those discussions.

The Government intend to maintain a high standard in fundamental research. The Government have just announced their intention of setting up a special research establishment to serve this purpose in conjunction with the work done by our friends in the United States. The establishment will cover all aspects of the use of atomic energy. We shall, therefore, be as much concerned with the peaceful industrial use of the process as we shall with its military possibilities. There are difficulties in making use of atomic energy as a source of power, and it is desirable that the difficulties should not be under-estimated. We may well succeed, but there have been some rather optimistic prophecies about it on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. As far as I know, no one with authoritative knowledge on this subject has any doubt that these difficulties will be overcome in the course of time. But statements such as those which have appeared in certain quarters that atomic power will be used for various forms of transport within the next two years are, I am advised, almost certainly much too optimistic. The best expert view is that they will take at least ten years to develop the process fully.

:That may be so, or of course the estimates may be all wrong; but I think we should possibly be building false hopes if we think developments will be as quick as some optimistic prophets have suggested. Our programme of research and large-scale development in this whole field needs the most careful planning, and we are making that careful planning. Our scientific manpower is limited, and it is essential to see that we make the best possible use of it and distribute our efforts wisely between the competing claims. Anybody who is at the heart of Government, or who has been there, knows the stress there is upon scientific resources, which the Government have mobilised very fully during the war. I hope the Government will continue to take a high interest in science and scientists. As a matter of fact one of our problems is that we have been driving them so hard, and using them so hard, that there is some danger of the supply becoming somewhat difficult. So the question of the supply of scientists has also got to be considered as we go along, and all these matters are being most carefully dealt with.

We shall wish also to ensure that our programmes are wisely planned in relation to the work being carried on in the other countries in association with whom we are now working, that is to say, the United States and the Dominion of Canada, which has also been closely associated with the development of atomic energy.

I have listened with great care to what has been said, and the House may be sure that the Prime Minister will keep these and other considerations in mind in his discussions with the President of the United States. I cannot be more specific; I think it would not be desirable at this stage that I should, but it is inevitable that these discussions should be the first step. We shall certainly not forget the welfare of the world in this matter; we "certainly shall not forget the relationship of this new development to the international, structure and to foreign policy, but it is desirable that we should all make our contribution, and that we should all give the matter most careful and constructive thought in order that what may be a great menace to the whole future of civilization and of mankind may become instead a guardian of the peace of mankind and a promoter of the economic progress and advancement of the world.

May I just ask the right hon. Gentleman one question before he sits down: Is he in a position to say that the conversations with the President of the United States will not be limited to the scientific method of releasing atomic energy, but will also include disclosure of the industrial method of producing the atomic bomb?

:I think my hon. and gallant Friend can take it that the discussions—I have no precise agenda, and I do not know that any actually exists—will be full and comprehensive. I think I can safely tell the House that that is the intention of the Prime Minister.

It being a Quarter to Ten o'Clock, Mr. Speaker adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.