Michael Redfern QC presented the results of his three and a half year enquiry into the unauthorised removal of body parts from deceased nuclear workers.
The picture that emerged from his painstaking study was of a West Cumbrian community dominated by its main employer at Sellafield; where pathologists at the local hospital and local coroners had scant understanding of the law and valued cooperation with research by the nuclear industry above ethical and respectful treatment of bodies.
An informal arrangement between Sellafield Chief Medical Officer Geoffrey Schofield and the pathologists at West Cumberland Hospital meant that Sellafield’s Medical Office was told when there was going to be a post mortem on the body of a former nuclear worker. Schofield would drive to the mortuary to collect organs and tissue from the body take these back in a cool box to the laboratories at Sellafield for eventual destruction testing for the presence of radionucleiides.
Pathologists were either unaware of, or oblivious to, the law which required consent from next of kin for removal of body parts unless connected to the cause of death. Redfern lays the blame for the scandal largely at the door of the pathologists saying, ‘Ignorant of the law, they removed organs for analysis without satisfying themselves that relatives consent had been obtained.’ He says that the pathologists erroneously believed that they had carte blanche to remove organs and tissues for whatever reasons they saw fit. He is critical of the Coroners, who often failed to read pathologists’ post mortem reports, and thus were unaware that tissue had been removed inappropriately.
Dr Schofield was the driving force behind the post mortem work at Sellafield. Redfern does not criticise Schofield but says of the BNFL (former Sellafield operator) management structure, ‘there seems to have been little if any managerial supervision or control of his activities.’
There was no secrecy surrounding the actions – rather an assumption that research into the effects on the body of exposure to radioactivity was of paramount importance.
Inquiry examines events from 1955-1992
The weighty 650 page Redfern Inquiry report was published November 16. It examines the events from 1955 to 1992 when human tissue was removed from dead bodies and taken for analysis in UK nuclear facilities
Redfern was appointed to conduct the enquiry in April 2007 following reports that organs and body parts had been taken from 65 deceased former Sellafield workers from 1955 to 1992.
The organs, tissue and or bone were removed at autopsy, without the knowledge or consent of their next of kin and taken to Sellafield for further research. However, a year into the enquiry evidence came to light of similar work carried out at other sites and of studies involving non-nuclear workers, and in 2008 the scope of the enquiry was broadened to include these.
Chris Huhne, Secretary of State for DECC made a statement to Parliament, apologising to the families and relatives of those involved and saying that lessons have been learned.
Huhne said, “The report finds that there was a lack of ethical consideration of the implications of the research work the industry was doing; that there was limited supervision undertaken; and that relationships between pathologists, coroners and the Sellafield medical officers became too close.
The inquiry found 76 cases where organs were taken and subjected to radiochemical analysis. The families of 14 of these men gave evidence. It is not clear whether, following the publication of the report, further families will come forward. An Inquiry helpline has been set up to help people who think their relative may have been involved in the nuclear studies covered by the Redfern Inquiry. The line - number 0800 555 777 - will initially be active for a two week period but may be extended.
The unauthorised removal of posthumous body parts is a particularly emotive subject in the UK following public outcry in the 1990s when it became apparent that unauthorised removal, retention and disposal of 850 children’s body organs had taken place at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital. A public enquiry followed, also chaired by Redfern. Following the Redfern Inquiry, a new law on informed consent came into effect in 2004 that ensured that after the Coroner’s enquiries, no human bodies, body parts, organs or tissue can be taken without the consent of relatives.