'Radioactive Scots' sparked contamination fears

January 7, 2005

Newly released records from the Scottish Office reveal that there was genuine fear in Sixties Scotland that radioactive Scots - guinea pigs for radiation therapy - could be at large and contaminating the general population.

Papers released this week under the Freedom of Information Act show that ten years after a consortium of universities set up the Scottish Research Reactor Centre in East Kilbride in 1963, fears over radiation therapy continued to cause concern.

From the outset, academics were keen to make full use of the centre to further their science and two of the research staff volunteered to be irradiated.

The Scottish Office records reveal that this sparked off a debate between various government departments, including the then Ministry of Power in Millbank, about whether the centre's licence allowed this.

Alarm deepened in 1966, when Donald Alexander, a Glasgow University researcher, proposed radiation treatment for volunteer patients with thyroid problems.

One civil servant also warned of the danger of radioactive humans wandering about freely.

"In hospitals, they could be kept in bed in a restricted area until the radioactivity had disappeared, but at East Kilbride, it was possible for them just to walk off the site," said one memo.

Scottish Office lawyers also feared that the Scottish Secretary might subsequently be liable for compensation claims from injured patients.

In the US, experiments were already under way that gave thyroid patients massive doses of radiation, but Dr Alexander, senior lecturer in medicine, argued that the reactor centre would allow short, intense and precisely controlled doses.

The Chief Medical Officer and the Medical Research Council believed that the experiments could be less harmful than existing treatments, but urged that more animal experiments should be done first.

The Nuclear Installations Inspectorate was unhappy about the site's environment. One NII inspector noted that the area where patients would be had been tidied up a bit, but added: "The reactor top still looks more like a workshop than a clinic and could at least do with a coat of paint."

In 1967, the research centre required a new licence to build an isotope geology laboratory, and the new conditions allowed the experiments to go ahead, with Dr Alexander and Glasgow University both indemnifying the Scottish Secretary against any liability.

But in 1974, the inspectorate claimed that patients were being treated by unauthorised staff, doctors who were deputising for consultants rather than being on its list of "authorised clinicians".

A Scottish Home and Health Department official said that "in the medical profession, it had always been accepted that consultants were responsible for their staff in the delivery of treatment, and it seemed to him that the NII was the only body that would not accept that dictum".

The final memo in the file appears to be a tip-off from the Scottish Office to the research centre that the NII was on the warpath. It warned that the inspectorate was on the verge of losing patience over "misdemeanours" such as treating patients without complying with proper procedures.

But the Scottish Office appeared to have calmed down by then. The memo revealed it had become far more relaxed. It read: "The whole in vivo irradiation procedure is messy and the responsibility boundaries hazy, but we have this well in hand."

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