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BMJ. 2007 April 28; 334(7599): 868.
PMCID: PMC1857784

Inquiry will study claims that Sellafield workers' body parts were removed without families' consent

An independent inquiry will look into claims that body parts were removed from deceased workers at Sellafield nuclear power plant in Cumbria without their families' consent.

Michael Redfern QC, the barrister who led the inquiry into the retention of children's organs at Liverpool's Alder Hey Hospital, will examine what procedures were followed, whether consent was obtained, and what use was made of the tissues, said Alistair Darling, the trade and industry secretary, last week.

Sixty five cases in which tissue was taken from deceased former workers have been identified by British Nuclear Fuels, the company that today operates Sellafield. The workers all died between 1962 and 1991.

Mr Darling said that medical records indicated that 23 samples were taken after a coroner's inquest and 33 after a coroner's postmortem examination. Three requests for analysis arose from legal claims, while another was made by an individual before death. Yet another was carried out on what was described as a “legally correct basis.” In the four remaining cases there is no clear record of what prompted the request for tissue samples, he said.

Mr Darling stressed the limited nature of the records. He said, “They do not provide an audit trail which would show in every case who asked for such an examination under what authority and for what purpose. Nor do they disclose whether or not the appropriate consent from next of kin was received.” An examination of coroners' records would be essential, he added.

The UK Atomic Energy Authority will also review its medical records of 20 000 former nuclear employees who have died, to see whether other tissue samples have been taken. The review will include the authority's other former nuclear sites at Dounreay, Harwell, and Winfrith.

The Sellafield tissue samples were studied by government scientists seeking to measure the risk of plutonium exposure at the facility.

The results were published in specialist journals. A study led by Sellafield's chief medical officer, Adam Lawson, published in the 1989 Proceedings of the International Symposia of the Society for Radiological Protection, used data from 61 former Sellafield workers. It sought to establish the effectiveness of urine samples in measuring exposure to plutonium.

A study conducted by the National Radiological Protection Board, published in the Radiological Protection Bulletin in July 1986, said plutonium levels were higher than normal in former Sellafield workers. Another study by the same group, published in the journal Radiation Protection Dosimetry in July 1989, included data from four former Sellafield workers.


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