The UK’s secretary of state for trade and industry Alistair Darling has launched an inquiry into actions over a 30-year period by British Nuclear Fuels and the Ministry of Defence concerning the vital organs of deceased radiation workers at Sellafield and other nuclear sites which are believed to have been removed for testing without the knowledge of surviving relatives.
The inquiry will be led by Michael Redfern and will focus on the circumstances in which, between 1961 and 1992, organs/tissue were removed from 65 individuals, and were sent to and analysed at the Sellafield nuclear complex in Cumbria.
The inquiry aims to establish in particular when, where, by whom and by what means the taking of organs/tissue was requested and authorised and whether this was based on informed consent by the families of the those concerned.
Since the scandal broke both the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) and the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) have begun to examine their records to identify if tests on autopsy tissues were carried out at any of their sites and the UKAEA is believed to have carried out similar procedures at Harwell at least until the early 1980s. There are also indications that Harwell also participated in work related to some people who did not work in the nuclear industry.
BNFL confirmed autopsy material had been used for “legally correct” purposes such as inquests and said it can prove instruction or consent for 61 out of the 65 cases for which records exist at Sellafield. In four cases, “there is no record of instruction or consent on file although this does not mean appropriate requests were not made,” it said. The samples were destroyed by the analysis process and no tissue is stored on site. The practice of taking samples for radiological analysis ceased in 1992.
The subject of sampling autopsy material came about because of a request by the Westlakes Research Institute to the Westlakes/NDA Research Governance Group to re-examine the historic research data to support new studies.
Opposition Liberal Democrat shadow trade and industry secretary Susan Kramer said: “The terms of this inquiry are still far too narrow. The government should ensure that all nuclear sites are checked to find out what has occurred and where,” adding, “These events underline the importance of the nuclear industry dropping its veil of secrecy.”
Nuclear workers union Prospect called for a public inquiry with Mike Graham, national secretary for the North West, saying: “The nuclear industry today has a record of openness and transparency and any investigation must be conducted in this spirit.”