John Dunster and ‘The Experiment’

“Most of the objects which ultimately do find their way to the shore are harmless and a considerable source of pleasure to children.” (John Dunster conference speech Geneva 1958)

John Dunster was a Scientist at Winscale around at the time of the 1957 fire and he went on to become Assistant Director at the National Radiological Protection Board. On his death he was eulogised by the International Commission on Radiological Protection.

However Dunster and his Windscale contemporaries were responsible for one of the most infamous events that the UK government has ever undertaken and which arguably impacted on the health of many people around the coasts of the Irish sea. It arguably ultimately must have led to increased deaths from cancer.

In 1958, almost as an aside, Dunster told a conference of nuclear scientist in Geneva:

“discharges (from Sellafield) have been deliberately maintained. . . high enough to obtain detectable levels in samples of fish, seaweed and shore sand, and the experiment is still proceeding. In 1956 the rate of discharge of radioactivity was deliberately increased, partly to dispose of unwanted wastes, but principally to yield better experimental data.”

Some of Dunsters other observations seem both naive and bizarre by today’s standards he said:

“The sea has always been regarded by coastal and seafaring peoples as the ideal place for dumping their waste and this is, of course, a very reasonable and proper attitude,” he went on:

“Almost everything put into the sea is either diluted…or broken down…or stored harmlessly on the seabed. Most of the objects which ultimately do find their way to the shore are harmless and a considerable source of pleasure to children.”

He was also open about why the sea was a prime source for dumping stating:

“Not the least of the attractions of the sea as a dumping ground has been the lack of administrative controls,”.

The comments seem astonishing now.

What is clear from the statement made quite openly was that the UK nuclear industry were deliberately polluting the Irish Sea with radiation to measure the impact on the environment. ‘The experiment’ as he put it was continuing and they were using the people who lived around the North Irish sea as ‘guinea pigs’ in this quest for ‘experimental data’

According to Dunster the ‘experiment’ had ‘the support of the authorizing government departments’ i.e. the UK government gave the green light for radiation to be released to see where in the food chain, animals and humans the radiation ended up.

Despite Dunster’s revelations few paid any heed because in the ‘50s’ the ‘musings’ of nuclear physicists at obscure conferences in Geneva were hardly headline grabbing, nobody became generally aware of the UK nuclear industries wrongdoing until the late 1970s.

When it did become apparent a Irish TD called it ‘criminality’. He was Charles Haughey later Ireland’s Taoiseach.

Speaking in the Dail in 1984 Haughey said:

‘Will he admit that there has been criminal negligence in regard to this whole matter, that there has been a massive cover-up and that my statement that the people concerned should now be in jail has been backed up by the Director of Public Prosecutions in Britain? Even at this late stage will he do something to bring this ominous, dangerous scandal to an end and protect the lives of people?’

In Mann Sir Charles Kerruish also tried to raise the issue but as in Ireland the governments of the day were not interested so the British got away with ‘the experiment’!

Dunster went on to become a head of the (UK) National Radiological Protection Board (NRPB) he died in 2006.

Whether ‘the experiment’ and subsequent discharges led to increased incidence of cancer in Cumbria. North Wales, the Isle of Man and Eastern Ireland is still the subject of an unresolved debate.

Image: Windscale (later renamed Sellafield) in the 1950s. Pile No 1 where the fire occurred is to the rear left of the photo.

Bernard Moffatt

Assistant General Secretary
Celtic League

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