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Nuclear Weapons: Accidents

Volume 416: debated on Tuesday 13 January 1981

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2.38 p.m.

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 their attention has been drawn to the statement by Pentagon officials that up to 36 accidents involving nuclear weapons have occurred since 1945, including some on the territory of United States allies; whether any such accidents have occurred in the British Isles; and whether British defence advisers will participate in exercises in the Nevada desert in April to deal with such accidents.

My Lords, we are aware that British newspapers have carried reports about accidents to United States nuclear weapons based on information attributed to Pentagon officials. There has never been a nuclear weapon accident involving the release of fissile material in the United Kingdom and we are satisfied with the precautions taken to avoid such incidents. British observers will be present at the exercise in Nevada in April.

My Lords, is it not the case that these figures were issued by the United States defense department? Are they not terribly grave and should not the public be aware of them? Has the Minister noted the Pentagon statement that in 10 countries the facts were too sensitive to describe and that in some cases the Governments concerned kept the incidents secret when radioactive plutonium was distributed, the exception being in Spain where secrecy was impossible because plutonium was spread over a wide area, costing £20 million to clean up?

My Lords, the noble Lord will know that I have only just taken over the portfolio I now hold. Nevertheless, my understanding of the situation is not as he describes it. It was not a United States official Pentagon statement, but was made up of various reports carried in the press attributed to Pentagon officials, and noble Lords will realise that there is a major difference. I believe the Answer I gave to the noble Lord was accurate in every respect. In regard to accidents outside the United Kingdom which I covered in my initial Answer, I have to say that since 1968 there has been only one such incident in the United States, and that was the well-reported incident involving a Triton missile last year which fortunately did not include the release of fissile material and no one was harmed.

My Lords, may I take this opportunity to congratulate the Minister on his appointment—although I am bound to say I regret the lack of opportunity to fire questions at his predecessor, for whom I still have a very high regard. Is the noble Viscount aware that his reply to my noble friend Lord Brockway will dissipate some of the fears that exist in the minds of some people arising from false statements which appear in the press?

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for all the sentiments he expressed, to my predecessor and myself, and I hope very much that what I have said will help to stop the scare, to put it bluntly.

My Lords, may I also preface my supplementary question to the noble Viscount by saying that this is certainly a House and a country where one may politically deplore but personally rejoice, and will he therefore accept from me my congratulations on his elevation? Is he aware that there is a considerable body of technical opinion in more than one country, and particularly perhaps in the so-called nuclear countries, that is increasingly apprehensive lest a nuclear holocaust might well be caused not by belligerent action so much as by sheer accident? In that case, are Her Majesty's Government satisfied that some kind of register of accidents, small and large, in all nuclear countries is being kept and that the knowledge and skill in dealing with accidents as such is being freely and frankly exchanged among such countries, because that procedure—based, as it would be, on practical co-operation and mutual interest—would be one way of approaching the intensely difficult task of effectively achieving multilateral nuclear disarmament?

My Lords, first, in relation to the noble Lord's final remarks, of course we support all practical efforts towards arms control which are safe. Turning to the noble Lord's opening remarks, the immense importance of accidents clearly has not been ignored by Her Majesty's Government, nor I believe by any of the Governments of the nuclear powers. The seriousness of a possible accident is so great that I think it is not an exaggeration to say that the safety measures, the recording measures, a register of even tiny mishaps that take place, are, I understand, matters that are carried out by all the nuclear powers. I believe that exchange, which Her Majesty's Government would certainly support, is carried out effectively, in particular in the case of the United States, where we shall be present at the next accident safety demonstration, as I have already said in my Answer to the noble Lord.

My Lords, may I join other noble Lords in extending very good wishes to the noble Viscount on the assumption of his duties and, equally, extending warm good wishes to his predecessor? Can the noble Viscount confirm that no accident involving a nuclear weapon has yet resulted in the loss of a human life, and that in fact most of these accidents presented no danger of escape of fissile material? Would not the noble Viscount agree that a record of 36 accidents in 35 years, with not one of them resulting in the loss of a human life, is a record which we should keep very much in perspective in talking about "the terribly grave consequences" of these accidents?

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for all those sentiments, with which I agree. I would add merely the statement that I have already made: that since 1968 there has been only one such accident in the United States.

My Lords, may I join in extending to the Minister good wishes, which I had intended to convey earlier? Arising from the question from the Cross-Benches, may I ask the Minister whether there was not an instance in North Carolina where only one of seven electric switches prevented a nuclear explosion 1,800 times more deadly than the Hiroshima bomb? Would not our representatives in Nevada best give service if they were to seek an international convention to dismantle nuclear weapons?

My Lords, I cannot answer the noble Lord's question in detail, but on the information that I have I am absolutely clear that we have never been in a situation anywhere near the kind of accident of which he speaks. I think that I have already said enough about the factual situation to allay fears which I am sure noble Lords would not wish to stir up.

My Lords, will the noble Viscount applaud with me the fact that in the Western nations we have a press which is prepared to give all publicity to stories of nuclear accidents, even if many of them prove to be false, rather than a press which publishes no stories whatever regarding nuclear accidents in countries in which, as we know, a number of such accidents have occurred, rendering lethal and sterile large parts of those countries?

My Lords, I should like to return to one aspect of this extremely important exchange. While no one would wish to create undue alarm regarding this question, it is, however, a fact that there has been widespread apprehension regarding the possibility of accident rather than war leading to, literally, a holocaust. In this connection, will the Minister, possibly in consultation with the Foreign Office, look into the findings so far promulgated by INFCE, in which we are taking a very prominent and effective part, in particular in regard to the registration of accidents and the registration of the movement of plutonium, much of which, unfortunately, is moving about the world at the moment, with nobody knowing how much, and where?

My Lords, I shall take the noble Lord's advice as part of my necessary education process, but on the point regarding the registration of accidents, I assure him that this is being done most meticulously.