On 31 March 1959 police in the Lanarkshire village of Wishaw traced three boys who were believed to have been contaminated with radiation while playing in an ash pit in the village. A nearby clock factory had been dumping wastes from its luminizing workshop at the pit and by chance somebody from the factory had seen the children there some days earlier. The boys were taken down to the Radiological Protection Centre at Sutton in Surrey the following day for a check-up and later pronounced to be ‘out of danger’. The Times reported that there were ‘nervous smiles all round’. 1
Four days later the member for South Lanark, Mrs Judith Hart, led a debate at the Scottish Labour Party Conference which called for a strengthening of safeguards against the ‘growing danger’ of the industrial use of radioactive materials. She claimed that the few safeguards which existed were administered in a context of ‘complete chaos’, and that no fewer than eleven agencies had responsibilities for the matter without any one of them holding final authority. 2 The debate had been prompted by the Wishaw incident.
In the House of Commons debate about the Radioactive Substances Bill 11 months later, the Wishaw incident, and another which similarly involved the accidental contamination of children, were cited as proof of the urgent need for new legislation. 3 Besides these specific cases of negligence, more general concerns also hung over the parliamentary discussions. Increased levels of atmospheric radiation in Britain caused by the atomic weapons tests in the Pacific and recent memories of the Windscale fire had brought home to the British public the reality of radiation in the environment for the first time. Moreover, a growing body of medical opinion in the 1950s had become concerned over the potentially catastrophic genetic effects of low-level radiation.
The Wishaw incident shows that public opinion has been sensitive about the control of radioactive waste materials since the beginning of the