London, 25 November 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Britain's Defense Ministry is at the center of a storm of criticism following its admission that scores of volunteers were exposed to radioactive substances during top secret tests to assess the impact of radiation on human health.
The fact that Britain has been conducting radiation tests on civilian and military personnel for past 40 years was disclosed at the weekend by an unofficial group, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND)
CND said the tests involved 200 volunteers who inhaled, swallowed or were injected with radioactive substances. Exposure to radiation caries a long-term risk of cancer and other health problems.
Janet Bloomfield, CND chairwoman, claimed that the tests at two nuclear centers, including the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston, were still going on. She said the government had "misled Parliament, the public and those involved about what has been done."
The Defense Ministry responded with a surprise admission, after years of denials, that tests had been conducted on 200 volunteers, but that the amount of radioactivity involved had been "negligible".
A spokeswoman said the tests were conducted with full medical safeguards and that all volunteers had the opportunity to pull out at any time. She said none of the volunteers has died or suffered ill-effects.
She said the tests were conducted in order to further medical science or testing operational equipment. She said the most recent tests were conducted in the 1980s but the program has since ceased.
The Defense Ministry admission flatly contradicted a statement issued by the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston two years ago that it had never been involved in radiation tests on humans.
Why were radiation tests on humans thought necessary? Reports say when the test program began in the 1950s, scientists were struggling to discover the basic impact of radioactive products on human biology. With fears of a nuclear war in mind, one of the most pressing questions was if, and how, nuclear fall-out could get into the body.
Government papers show the tests went ahead although U.S. scientists thought that they might be unethical and unsafe. Jack Shearer, of the Lawrence Livermore nuclear laboratory in California, expressed unhappiness about the British tests in the 1980s. When asked the worst case that could happen to a human subject, he answered: "Death."
Several Britons who were exposed to radiation are now taking their cases to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. They include a former employee of the Aldermaston atomic weapons center and two servicemen who took part in British atomic bomb tests.
A number of Britons have come forward in recent days to tell how they participated in radiation experiments. One, Keith Hopwood, a 55-year-old former radar operator, said he volunteered to have radioactive material poured onto his skin after a promise of half a week's wages. Scientist Arthur Morgan said he took part unpaid in volunteer experiments for 25-30 years. In one, he inhaled from a radioactive cigarette to help trace the deposition of cigarette smoke in the lungs. Now 68, he said he has never suffered noticeable ill-effects.
The "Observer" newspaper said the disclosure of the British radiation tests follows the U.S. government's admission two years ago that it had conducted more than 4,000 human experiments, some of which proved to be fatal. The "Observer" criticized Britain's failure until now to tell the truth, saying: "The Government's grudging U-turn reveals once again how it has lied for decades about Britain's secret nuclear history."