THE families of nuclear workers in the UK whose hearts, lungs and other organs were secretly tested for radiation for almost 40 years were let down by the authorities.
Michael Redfern, QC, was asked to investigate the little-known practice at Sellafield, in Cumbria, and other installations around Britain when it came to light three years ago. He has reported that in many cases families were “wronged”.
He heard evidence from 14 families and discovered that none had been asked for permission to remove their loved ones’ organs for research.
They were generally unaware of what the post-mortem examination involved and none had considered the possibility that whole organs could be removed for analysis.
Often the discovery that a body – which they thought they had buried or cremated intact – was in fact missing many internal organs, came as a great shock.
The report concludes that much distress was caused by the perceived lack of respect shown to the bodies.
Redfern looked into the cases of 65 individuals whose organs were sent to or analysed at Sellafield predominantly for the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) and British Nuclear Fuels Limited (BNFL).
The inquiry also takes in cases from Harwell and other UKAEA sites as well as Aldermaston, the Atomic Weapons Establishment.
The inquiry’s brief was to look into the circumstances in which, from 1955 to 1992, organs or tissue were removed from individuals and sent to nuclear laboratories for analysis.
Redfern said that scientists had long been concerned about workers’ exposure to radiation, essentially from plutonium. The analysis required a complex procedure in which organs were rendered to ash in a furnace and then dissolved in acid.
The inquiry found that the practice was carried out by Sellafield’s scientists, coroners and pathologists with such informality that they routinely ignored regulations.
Redfern, who carried out the inquiry into the illegal retention of body parts at Alder Hey Hospital on Merseyside, said: “The removal and analysis of organs for genuine coronial reasons occurred in relatively few cases; in the majority, it was unnecessary or inappropriate. Relatives were seldom asked for consent.”
He also held up Sellafield’s chief medical officers, coroners and pathologists for criticism. He concluded that coroners failed to communicate properly with families. They often ignored the law which permitted them to request radiochemical analysis only if they had decided to hold an inquest. They simply helped BNFL and the NRPB to obtain organs “heedless of whether consent was obtained”.
Redfern reserved special criticism for pathologists who removed organs effectively without consent, in breach of the Human Tissues Act, 1961.
Chris Huhne, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, made a full apology in the House of Commons and added: “To lose a family member is tragic, to find out sometimes decades later that tissue has been taken without consent is an unimaginable hardship. That knowledge is a burden no one should have to bear.”
A spokesman for Sellafield Ltd said: “We regret any distress caused and want to make clear that practices of the type outlined in the report ceased at Sellafield nearly 20 years ago”.