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British nuclear plant 'retained workers' organs'

AFP | April 18, 2007

The British government is expected Wednesday to announce an inquiry into claims that the body parts of dead nuclear power plant workers were stored and tested without their families' consent.

Between the 1960s and 1990s, organs from up to 70 employees at Britain's biggest nuclear site, Sellafield in north-west England, who died of cancer were tested for radiation, apparently in secret, trades unions said.

Trade and Industry Secretary Alistair Darling is to make an emergency statement to parliament and is expected to appoint a top lawyer to lead an independent investigation.

Paul Noon, general secretary of the Prospect union, which represents scientists and engineers, said organ removal without consent "should not have happened" whatever the motives.

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"Removal of organs from deceased radiation workers without consent would be ethically, morally and possibly legally wrong," he added.

A spokesman for the Department of Trade and Industry confirmed that there were "a number of matters that need investigating dating back to the 1960s."

British Nuclear Fuels Limited (BNFL), the holding company for British Nuclear Group, which manages Sellafield, said files exist at the plant for 65 cases.

In 56 of these, tests on organs were done under the aegis of post-mortem examinations or inquests conducted by coroners, it added.

"In five other cases, it was done under instruction from other legally correct bases, such as family solicitors.

"For the remaining four cases, there is no record of instruction or consent on file, although this does not mean that appropriate requests were not made," a spokesman said.

"There is no tissue stored on site today and the practice of taking samples for radiological analysis ceased in 1992."

The claims raise the spectre of a scandal at Alder Hey Children's Hospital in Liverpool, north-west England. There, hearts and other organs were harvested from the bodies of more than 850 babies who died between 1988 and 1996 without the knowledge or consent of families.

Following an inquiry into this case, it became illegal in Britain to take body organs without consent last year.

Organs, plus tissue and bones, were taken to Sellafield -- formerly known as Windscale -- after post-mortem examinations for radiation and were kept in freezers, the Times newspaper reported.

It said that the parts were destroyed by the testing process.

Although the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Agency, which controlled Sellafield, declared there was no risk attached to working there in 1977, the tests continued for a further 15 years afterwards, the daily added.

It is believed that none of the workers had died from radiation poisoning and the body parts were tested for the effects of long-term radiation exposure, the paper said.

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