Britain's government is investigating allegations that body parts were removed from nuclear workers after their deaths and tested for radiation over several decades, the trade minister said Wednesday.
Trade and Industry Secretary Alistair Darling said he authorized the investigation after unions alleged that vital organs were removed from bodies from the 1960s to the 1990s and secretly tested for radiation.
The trade union Prospect claims tissue, bones and other organs were taken without permission from the bodies of 65 employees who had died from cancer, most after working at the Sellafield nuclear plant in northwestern England.
"Removal of organs from deceased radiation workers without consent would be ethically, morally and possibly legally wrong," Paul Noon, general secretary of Prospect, wrote in a letter to the company released to the media. "Whatever the motives, it should not have happened."
Sellafield, operated by British Nuclear Fuels PLC, is one of the largest nuclear engineering centers in the world, with a power plant, fuel production and recycling facilities.
Darling said medical records documented 65 cases in which the company had removed tissue for radiological analysis.
He said an investigation led by lawyer Michael Redfern will focus on why the body parts were taken, who authorized their removal, and whether they had the families' permission.
In 55 of the cases, requests for body parts were made following a coroner's inquest or autopsy, Darling said, suggesting that in most cases, the tissues were removed to help establish the cause of death.
He also said all the parts have since been destroyed.
"This is clearly a difficult situation covering events that took place 45 years ago," Darling said in a statement before the House of Commons. "Nonetheless, we owe it to families and to the general public to find out what happened and why."
British Nuclear Fuels said the practice of taking samples for radiological analysis ended in 1992. "The issue of tissue sampling is an historic issue not a current one," it said.
In 1999, hundreds of hearts, brains, lungs and other body parts taken from dead children without their parents' permission were found stored in containers at a British hospital.
An investigation found a doctor - now banned from practicing in Britain - had taken organs from patients at Alder Hey Hospital in Liverpool, northwestern England, claiming to have stored them for research.