Those who live in glass houses should not throw stones. Those who, maybe understandably, conduct their civil nuclear affairs with an occasional under-injection of candour should not be too quick to condemn the secretiveness of Russia. With a timing that is perfect in its irony, it has emerged this spring, thanks to the 30-year rule, that in 1957 Harold Macmillan, then Prime Minister, took a decision that would have done credit to the most reticent of regimes. Told that there had been a graphite fire at Windscale, Macmillan deemed it better that the British public should not know, and that the Irish, across the water, should not be informed. Horrifying, deceitful, wicked, many people would now say. But, are we, even with the benefit of hindsight, quite sure?
Supposing, in the 1950s, a flood of scare stories had emerged from the Windscale incident, would the loss of life over years have been less? Even supposing it is conceded that some tens of people did indeed die from cancer as a result of the graphite fire in the plutonium-producing pile at Windscale in 1957, would we be right to wring our hands and say that the notion of producing electricity from nuclear power ought to have been snuffed out in its infancy? Because the snuffing-out in its infancy of, at any rate, the British nuclear power programme is what might well have occurred if Macmillan had decided to come clean. Had there been no significant nuclear power programme, the demands of electricity would have been such as to keep open a large number of marginal and probably dangerous coal mines. I have attended too many funerals during the last quarter of a century, as a Member of Parliament representing what were, in 1962, six pits, to wax lyrical about the need to keep mines open.
Although I myself raised in the House the behaviour of Macmillan in 1957, to mellow the criticism of the Russians in 1986, it is by no means an exact parallel. The fire at Windscale in 1957 was inside a massive concrete containment building into which it was possible to pump water. The Soviet facility is a totally different creature. Pouring water on the burning Soviet graphite moderator would only have made things worse by creating clouds of radioactive steam and probably setting in train a plutonium and uranium fire.
If the parallel is technically deficient, it is none the less a salutary reminder that we are in no position to lecture the Russians on secrecy. My outburst in the House of Commons on Wednesday 30 April, directed at both Front Benches, Conservative and Labour, stemmed from impatience with the notion that it served any useful purpose to lecture the Russians on secrecy at that point. Rebuking the Kremlin was likely to make it even more difficult for the British scientists who could actually lend assistance to get in contact with their Russian counterparts. Even on the worst scenario, it does not make much sense to infuriate people, however stupid they may have been, at a time when they are worried sick.
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[*] Not with Honour: The Inside Story of the Westland Scandal (Sphere, 218 pp., £3.95, 15 May, 0 7221 5546 8).