Disabled Britons 'used for atomic fall-out tests'

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The Independent Online

Severely disabled people were sent out from institutions in Britain to be used as guinea pigs during British atomic tests in the Australian desert in the 1950s, it was alleged yesterday.

They did not return home and are assumed to have died after witnessing nuclear explosions at Maralinga, in South Australia, at close quarters.

Claims that disabled people were deliberately exposed to radioactive fall-out to assess its effects on humans were examined in 1985 by an Australian Royal Commission into the tests, but were dismissed as unsubstantiated. Now The Independent has learnt of a pilot who says that he flew them out from Britain.

The pilot related his story to Robert Jackson, a respected Australian academic who is director of the Centre for Disability Research and Develop- ment at Edith Cowan University in Perth. The encounter took place after Dr Jackson gave a presentation to 300 staff in the late 1980s, during which he mentioned the allegations about radiation experiments.

Afterwards, he said, one staff member told him: "That was true. I was one of the pilots, and we didn't fly them out again." Dr Jackson said that he closely questioned the man, who had become a disabled care worker, and had no doubt that he was telling the truth. "I was quite convinced," he said. The people used as guinea pigs had multiple disabilities, both physical and intellectual, the man told him. Dr Jackson is now trying to trace the man, who left the centre several years ago.

The disclosure follows revelations last week that bodies of stillborn and dead babies were shipped to the US in the 1950s from Britain, Australia, Canada and Hong Kong for use in research projects on the effects of radiation exposure. Thousands of human bone samples were also sent out.

The Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency has admitted that bone samples were taken from dead babies and adults and sent abroad to be tested for Strontium 90, a key radioactive element, in a programme that continued until 1978.

Dr John Loy, the agency's chief executive, said pathologists in Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney cremated the bones before sending them to the US and Britain, where the ashes were tested with a geiger counter. Britain exploded 12 atomic bombs on Australian territory in the 1950s, at Maralinga and off the Montebello Islands, in Western Australia.

Australian servicemen stationed at Maralinga have claimed that two groups of severely disabled people were brought into the test area just before a detonation codenamed One Tree, the first of four. One group was brought by rail to Watson, about 20 miles away, and the other was flown in.

Terry Toon, president of the Australian Atomic Ex-Servicemen's Association, said yesterday that service personnel were given strict instructions not to approach a building just north of the Maralinga airstrip terminal. The building was surrounded by a 6ft-high fence and guarded by Federal police.

On one occasion, Mr Toon said, a refrigeration mechanic, Fred Wilkinson, went in to carry out repairs. "He said that the sound coming from inside the building was like the gibbering of mentally retarded people," Mr Toon said. "He said that after the second [atomic] test, you couldn't hear them anymore." Dr Jackson said it was "highly likely" that the experiments described by the pilot took place, given prevailing attitudes towards disabled people in the 1950s. "They were treated very poorly," he said. "They were dispensable."

Documents declassified by the US Energy Department in 1994 revealed a programme of secret radiation experiments carried out by the CIA between 1953 and 1967. The subjects included intellectually disabled boys at a school in Massachusetts, who were given radioactive milk with their breakfast cereal, and pregnant women in Tennessee, who were exposed to X-rays at an ante-natal clinic.