Nuclear families 'wronged' over organ research

Families of nuclear workers whose organs were secretly stripped out and tested for radiation research were "wronged" and "let down", an inquiry has concluded.

Body parts were taken without consent from 64 former Sellafield employees and provided for analysis by their employers between 1960 and 1991. Organs were also taken without consent from 12 workers at nuclear sites in Springfields, Capenhurst, Dounreay and Aldermaston to be tested at Sellafield.

Families giving evidence to the inquiry led by Michael Redfern QC – who probed the Alder Hey organ scandal – were said to be shocked their loved ones were buried or cremated without many internal organs.

In some cases bones were even replaced with broomstick handles so families would not become suspicious.

The report found an "extraordinary range" of organs were removed to gauge any effects of radiation. The liver was removed in all cases and one or both lungs in all but one incident.

Vertebrae, sternum, ribs, lymph nodes, spleen, kidneys and femur were also stripped in the majority of incidents. Brains, tongues, hearts and testes were also taken on the advice of the medical officer at Sellafield. All the organs were later destroyed.

Most of the post mortems were undertaken by pathologists at West Cumberland Hospital in which an "informal arrangement" existed whereby the Sellafield medical officer would be notified. Once stripped, organs were taken by car in a coolbox to Sellafield.

When coroners were involved in deaths, some failed to even read post-mortem reports while some knew organs were removed without consent but failed to act.

Mr Redfern concluded the relationship between pathologists, coroners and Sellafield medical officers "became too close" with failures to adhere to professional standards.

"In most of the cases, families have been wronged. Organs were removed at post mortem and provided for analysis despite being of no possible relevance to the cause of death.

"The blame lies mainly at the door of pathologists who performed the post-mortem examinations. Ignorant of the law, they removed organs for analysis without satisfying themselves that the relatives' consent had been obtained.

"Relatives were seldom asked for their consent. As a result, families buried or cremated incomplete bodies and many of those who have discovered the truth, years later, have been greatly distressed."

Under the provisions of the Human Tissue Act 1961, since superseded by the Human Tissue Act 2004, body parts may be removed at post mortem for medical education, treatment or research if permission was given by the deceased or their relatives.

Body parts may be removed on the direction of a coroner if a pathologist believes the examination may shed light on the cause of death.

Mr Redfern said it was the view of the families that the bodies were treated as a "commodity".

The inquiry also considered a number of research projects involving analysis of organs, largely taken without consent, from more than 6,500 bodies. These were removed at NHS hospitals throughout the country and tested at nuclear facilities.

This mainly consisted of a Medical Research Council study of bone taken from 6,072 individuals – mostly children under 16 – which measured the levels of Strontium 90, a radioactive isotope, in the body.

Others tested were test veterans who had attended nuclear weapons tests and random individuals who lived close to nuclear facilities.

The UK Atomic Energy Authority and British Nuclear Fuels Limited knew of the post-mortem work of Sellafield chief medical officer Dr Geoffrey Schofield but there was little or no managerial supervision of the research undertaken, Mr Redfern said. Dr Schofield worked at Sellafield from 1958 until his sudden death in 1985.

In a statement, the Sellafield management said: "Sellafield Ltd's primary concern is for the feelings of the families of former employees who have been personally affected by this matter, and who may be distressed by the findings of this report.

"We regret any distress caused to the families and want to make it clear that practices of the type outlined in the report ceased at Sellafield nearly 20 years ago."