Bones from thousands of children who died between 1954 and 1970 were tested, without their parents' consent, to see if they had been exposed to radioactive fallout, the Atomic Energy Authority said yesterday.
Thigh bones from 4,000 children were used in experiments to measure the longer-term effects on humans of atomic explosions, it said. The femurs were taken without consultation with parents, the authority said. It tried to justify its use of the bones, saying that the research during the 1950s led to the eventual cessation of atmospheric nuclear bomb testing.
Beth Taylor, a spokeswoman for the authority, said: "It is true that parental or relatives' approval wasn't sought. We assume that parents weren't asked because it wasn't the norm at the time."
The research showed the bones had higher levels of Strontium 90 – a dangerous chemical that the body can use instead of calcium to make bones.
Ms Taylor said the research – which was carried out in London and Glasgow – contributed to a decision to halt British atmospheric nuclear explosions in 1963. "The programme was done for the best of reasons," she said. "It was the period when we were doing atmospheric tests of hydrogen bombs and there was quite a bit of concern about the dangers of nuclear fallout."
Similar revelations were made in June when the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency admitted it had shipped dead children's bones from Australia to Britain and the US for tests.
The involuntary altruism forced on parents has failed to win over activists angered by similarly secretive post-mortem organ removals at some British hospitals. A spokeswoman for Scottish Parents for a Public Inquiry into Organ Retention said stronger laws were needed to ensure parents had control of their children's bodies after their deaths.
Parents were outraged when it was revealed that a Dutch pathologist, Dick van Velzen, while working at the Alder Hey children's hospital in Liverpool, had stripped children of their organs during post-mortem examinations between 1988 and 1995, without parental consent.
The Government said in a report in January that the actions of Dr van Velzen were "unethical and illegal" and that "the pain caused to the parents by this dreadful sequence of events is unforgivable".
The scandal at Alder Hey led to more wide-ranging inquiries which found that more than 100,000 hearts, brains, lungs and other organs were held by hospitals and medical schools across the country, many without the knowledge of next-of-kin.
Many parents were forced to bury their children twice, and in some cases three times, as different parts of their bodies were found in pathology laboratories.Reuse content