HC Deb 23 October 1952 vol 505 cc1268-71
The Prime Minister

With your permission, Sir, I shall now make a statement in answer to Question No. 45, asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lonsdale (Sir I. Fraser).

The object of the test was to investigate the effects of an atomic explosion in a harbour. The weapon was accordingly placed in H.M.S. "Plym," a frigate of 1,450 tons, which was anchored in the Monte Bello Islands.

Conditions were favourable and care was taken to wait for southerly winds so as to avoid the possibility of any significant concentration of radio-active particles spreading over the Australian mainland.

Specimen structures of importance to Civil Defence and to the Armed Services were erected at various distances. Instruments were set up to record the effect of contamination, blast, heat flash, gamma ray flash and other factors of interest.

The weapon was exploded in the morning of 3rd October. Thousands of tons of water and of mud and rock from the sea bottom were thrown many thousands of feet into the air and a high tidal wave was caused. The effects of blast and radio-active contamination extended over a wide area and H.M.S. "Plym" was vaporised except for some red hot fragments which were scattered over one of the islands and started fires in the dry vegetation.

Very soon after the explosion two naval officers undertook the dangerous task of flying helicopters over the heavily contaminated lagoon where "Plym" had lain. This was in order to take samples of the water so that its radio-activity could be measured. After a longer interval, scientists and Service personnel in protective clothing entered the contaminated area to examine the effect and to recover records.

Technical descriptions of the performance of the bomb cannot, of course, be given. It may, however, be said that the weapon behaved exactly as expected and forecast in many precise details by Dr. W. G. Penney, whose services were of the highest order. Scientific observations and measurements show that the weapon does not contradict the natural expectation that progress in this sphere would be continual.

To give some idea of the character of the explosion perhaps I might say this: normal blood temperature is 98⅖ degrees. Many of us go over 100 degrees. When the flash first burst through the hull of "Plym" the temperature was nearly I million degrees. It was, of course, far higher at the point of explosion.

The explosion caused no casualties to the personnel of the expedition. No animals were used in the test. Apart from some local rats which were killed, no mammals were seen in the affected area and such birds as there were had mostly been frightened away by the earlier preparations.

Her Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom wish to express their indebtedness for all the help received from Australia. Not only did the Australian Commonwealth allow us to use their territory for the test, but all branches of their Government, and particularly the Navy, Army and Air Force, gave us most valuable collaboration in the preparation and execution of this most important experiment.

All those concerned in the production of the first British atomic bomb are to be warmly congratulated on the successful outcome of an historic episode and I should no doubt pay my compliments to the Leader of the Opposition and the party opposite for initiating it.

Sir I. Fraser

Can my right hon. Friend say whether any new scientific knowledge has emerged which will lead to improved weapons or to a speedier use of nuclear fission in industrial matters?

The Prime Minister

I have carefully considered the terms of the statement I have made to the House, and I do not wish to add to them at the present moment.

Mr. Shinwell

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether the United States authorities have asked for information about the results of the test, and whether, if it is intended to furnish them with information, it will be on the basis of reciprocity?

The Prime Minister

The original arrangements made in the war were, of course, on the basis of strict equality and reciprocity. Those results were superseded by other arrangements after the war. We have conducted this operation ourselves, and I do not doubt that it will lead to a much closer American interchange of information than has hitherto taken place—than has taken place in the last two years—but I do not wish to make any statement on the subject.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

Is the Prime Minister aware that the note of flippancy which crept into his statement will appal many people who visualise what would happen to us in this country if an atomic bomb were dropped in the Port of London? Is it not now quite clear that this country is in enormous danger and that the atom bomb ought to be exported to America?

The Prime Minister

I think that this raises very large issues. There is no question of flippancy in what I say. I am only stating the facts. One may be confronted with very terrible facts—we live in a very terrible age—but there is no reason why we should lose our spirits.

Mr. Beswick

Would the Prime Minister not agree that the bombs which the Americans originally exploded would not have been possible had it not been for the contributions of Dr. Penney, and furthermore, would he not agree that Dr. Penney himself would not have helped create the weapon which was exploded in Australia had it not been for his experience in the laboratories of the United States? If we are to have further progress in this matter, in the civil and military field, would it not be better if we could get the closest possible co-operation between the United States and ourselves, and will he do all that he possibly can to facilitate that co-operation?

The Prime Minister

There are a very large number of important people in the United States concerned with this matter who have been most anxious for a long time that Britain should be kept better informed. This event will greatly facilitate and support the task which these gentlemen have set themselves.

Mr. S. Silverman

Can the right hon. Gentleman tell the House approximately what was the total cost of this experimental explosion, and will he bear in mind that to some of us it is no comfort at all to realise that both the major parties in the State are equally responsible for this colossal folly?

The Prime Minister

I do not know that we are equally responsible. We took the matter up at the point at which it was left to us. It seems to me that the problem is one which faces us all equally. Even if one sits below the Gangway, one does not escape the responsibility.

Mr. Silverman

What about the cost?

The Prime Minister

As to the cost, I have said before, as an old Parliamentarian, that I was rather astonished that well over £100 million should be disbursed without Parliament being made aware of it. I was a bit astonished. However, there is the story, and we now have a result which on the whole, I think, will be beneficial to public safety. As for the future, I think we must be guided by the precedents established under the last régime as to detailed accounts and the way in which the expenditure is recorded.