Dozens of people drank, inhaled or were injected with radioactivity as part of a series of secret experiments carried out by the nuclear industry in the 1960s, according to official documents passed to the Sunday Herald.
Tests exposing humans to radioactive caesium, iodine, strontium and uranium were conducted despite doubts about their legal and ethical implications. One proposal even envisaged injecting plutonium into elderly people to help assess contamination risks.
The new evidence could form part of the government inquiry launched last week into the industry’s shady past. The trade and industry secretary, Alistair Darling, appointed Michael Redfern QC to investigate concerns that body tissue from dead nuclear workers had been removed for tests without the consent of relatives.
Tissue from organs and bones were taken from 65 deceased workers at Sellafield in Cumbria and other nuclear plants between 1962 and 1991. They were sampled for radioactive contamination to help improve understanding of the health risks.
Now documents from the National Archives in London have shed new light on other scandals involving the nuclear industry. A memo from the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) in August 1965 summarised a series of “experiments involving exposure of volunteers to radiation”.
It said 10 volunteers from Harwell in Oxfordshire drank a liquid containing caesium-132 and caesium-134 in November 1962. Two volunteers from Sellafield, then known as Windscale, also ingested some strontium 90 to investigate “uptake by the gut”.
A further 18 volunteers at Harwell in 1964 breathed in a vapour of methyl iodide-132 to test its retention in the thyroid gland. If anyone became ill as a result, the memo said, they would be able to sue for damages, though the risk was dismissed as “negligible”.
A letter from May 1968 mentioned moral and practical concerns raised over two uranium tests planned for the Springfield nuclear plant near Preston.
Another memo from 1962 referred to highly controversial US experiments in which elderly and sick hospital patients were injected with plutonium. It suggested carrying out a similar experiment in the UK, mentioning old people as potential candidates.
The nuclear researcher and consultant who unearthed the documents, Dr David Lowry, has offered to submit his evidence to the Redfern inquiry. “The revelations put a large question mark against official reassurances given by the nuclear industry to successive public inquiries that radiation protection measures were adequate,” he said.
Lowry, co-author of a forthcoming book on nuclear power, is particularly concerned about the way he alleges the UKAEA planned to spin the human experiments. “The nuclear industry must learn that the public demands the whole truth not half-truths when it comes to public health and safety,” he said.
One memo from January 1963 recommended against announcing experiments before they began. Instead it suggested providing a brief for public relations staff “for use only if the experiments become public knowledge”.
An earlier meeting in 1962 was keen to keep plans to do whole body monitoring for radiation under wraps. “The least possible publicity should be given to the process of volunteering,” the meeting concluded.
Further evidence of tissue sampling for radioactive contamination comes from a nuclear historian at the University of Manchester, Dr Emm Barnes. She pointed out that a variety of studies were discussed at a meeting at the Department of Heath in October 1984.
The draft minutes of the meeting, marked “in confidence”, quoted a scientist from the government’s then National Radiological Protection Board (NRPB). “The NRPB had been collecting and analysing human tissue samples from Cumbria and several other parts of the country for some time,” he said.
“Samples of tissue from lungs, liver and bone were collected and analysed for plutonium and other radioactive wastes,” the report said. “Some, but not all, samples were obtained from coroners’ post-mortems.”
Scientists had also “obtained tissue samples from children dying in road accidents, and were trying to obtain foetal tissues and placentae”.
The meeting also discussed the “ethical problems” of feeding radioactively contaminated whelks from near Sellafield to children.
According to Dr Barnes, scientists proposed to use stillborn babies and aborted foetuses in some tests, without informing parents of the results.
The UKAEA is investigating whether any tissue from workers who had died at the Dounreay nuclear plant in the north of Scotland had been involved in the experiments. It is expecting to make a statement next week, and submit evidence to the Redfern inquiry.
A UKAEA spokesman also confirmed that radiological exposure experiments had taken place, but stressed that all the volunteers were members of staff who had given their informed consent. The proper medical protocols of the time had been followed, and exposures were low.
The need to develop nuclear power and nuclear weapons were “adequate justification” for exposing workers, one 1963 memo said.
“The proposal to expose volunteers to radiation to improve radiobiological knowledge is no more than a simple extension of the same principle.”