Thursday, 5 July 2018

Radioactive experiments on nuclear workers re-visited

Today marks the 70th anniversary of the foundation of our rightly celebrated National Health Service. But as we have discovered over the recent case of  opiate overdoses at Gosport Hospital , not everything done in the name of the NHS I has been beneficial to national health . Here is another worrying case, reported by the Observer 11 years ago, based on papers I discovered at the National Archives at Kew , in sw London.

Revealed: UK nuclear tests on workers
Sellafield memos uncover fears over legality of making volunteers drink radioactive isotopes
Workers at Sellafield, the nuclear plant at the centre of the missing body parts scandal, were subjected to secret Cold War experiments in which they were exposed to radiation, The Observer can reveal. One experiment, described in a confidential memo, involved volunteers drinking doses of caesium 134, a radioactive isotope that was released in fatal quantities following the Chernobyl disaster. Other experiments involved exposing volunteers to uranium, strontium 85, iodine 132 and plutonium.
The revelation raises questions over whether the volunteers suffered early deaths or illness due to their exposure.
The experiments, which started in the Sixties, were considered so controversial that Sellafield drew up a covert PR strategy to deflect possible media attention.
Documents obtained by The Observer show that the experiments on the organs of the dead workers at Sellafield were being conducted at the same time as government scientists were using volunteer employees at the plant as guinea pigs.
The papers, which also refer to experiments being conducted on staff at Dounreay and Winfrith nuclear power stations, and at the nuclear research centre at Harwell, highlight deep misgivings among the government's senior advisers about going ahead with the trials.
A letter to Sellafield's then senior medical officer, Dr GB Schofield, from KP Duncan, the government's chief medical officer, dated 12 February 1965, states that 'any plan to deal with patients should be discussed with the legal branch before things get that far'. Duncan expresses surprise that work on the experiments has 'already started' and expresses 'genuine points for concern'.
According to the documents, only those over 18 and 'of sound mind' could volunteer for the experiments following a medical examination. They defined what the scientists believed were safe exposure limits for the volunteers. However, a paper drawn up in 1965 by the UK Atomic Energy Authority, the government body that oversees civil nuclear production and clean-ups, acknowledges there were serious risks with the experiments. It suggests that if 'a person volunteering to take part in the experiments subsequently developed ill-effects which could be shown to be due to his exposure, either voluntary or involuntary, he would have right of action for damages against the Authority'.
Geoff Dolphin, the then secretary of the government's Radiobiology Research Panel, is recorded in another memo, written in May 1962, observing 'it could be argued, to take an extreme view if something went wrong, that one had actually committed an offence'.
Dr David Lowry, a nuclear expert who uncovered the documents, said they showed there had been an alarming culture of secrecy within the British nuclear industry at the time. 'These documents place a large question mark against official reassurances given by the nuclear industry to successive public inquiries,' Lowry said. 'We need to know when these experiments ended and how many people were involved.'
One memo from the government's Medical Research Council Radiobiological Unit, written in 1962, describes the need to experiment on three types of volunteer: 'pregnant women and all persons under 18'; 'patients with non-fatal illnesses and volunteers'; and 'patients in hospitals and volunteers who are undergoing tests under appropriate medical supervision with regard to any possible effects from radiation'.
The document suggests that the recommended limit for a volunteer's exposure to radiation could be exceeded 'in exceptional cases, for example patients with fatal illnesses and research workers who are well informed about the risk from ionizing radiations'.
Another document, marked 'Official Use Only', states: 'The question arises whether the fact that the [Atomic Energy] Authority are now starting such experiments should be publicly announced... on balance it would be preferable for our public relations staff to be briefed with material for use only if the experiments become public knowledge.'
Greenpeace's Jean McSorely said the human experiments were yet more evidence of the nuclear industry's 'bizarre and unsettling' behaviour during the Sixties. 'We know they experimented with discharging radioactive liquid into the seas during the Fifties. So it's maybe not that surprising they decided to experiment on humans, too.'
A spokesman for BNFL, the company that now runs Sellafield, declined to comment while the independent investigation into the removal of organs from bodies of former workers at the plant was still under way.

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