Redfern Inquiry exposes AWE’s role in the nuclear industry body parts scandal

The Redfern Inquiry into the unlawful removal of organs from the bodies of deceased workers in the nuclear industry has exposed a scandal that highlights the dangers resulting from the 'we know best' attitude and lack of accountability of professionals working in the nuclear sector.

The removal of body parts was driven by the nuclear industry's fears about the impact of radiation on the health of their workers.  Doctors and scientists chose to conduct investigations on workers who had died without the informed consent of their families and then kept this fact secret for many years.

Our sympathies go out to all the families affected by this scandal, for whom the bodies of loved ones have been violated by public authorities who should have known better.  It is difficult to imaging a deeper betrayal of the trust of those who were grieving the loss of a family member.

Although the newspaper headlines about the affair have focused mainly on events at the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant and the staff of British Nuclear Fuels Ltd (BNFL) who were responsible for running the plant, the Redfern Inquiry found that the scandal extended across the whole of the nuclear industry.  Michael Redfern QC uncovered compelling evidence that similar practices were routine at the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE), the National Radiological Protection Board, and the Medical Research Council.

The lengths gone to by the former Atomic Weapons Research Establishment (AWRE – now renamed AWE) to prevent employees who had developed cancers from claiming compensation from the Establishment and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) is just one of many unpalatable episodes revealed in the Redfern report (download the relevant chapter from the report below).

Over the years, a number of AWE employees who had developed cancers initiated legal action alleging that the cancer had been caused by exposure to radiation during their work.  AWE worked closely with the Treasury Solicitor’s Department in defending those claims. If the workers in question died, the Treasury Solicitor would advise the coroner on the appropriate investigations, including radiochemical analysis of organs removed from the body at post mortem examination, which would assist in determining the cause of death.

The Redfern Inquiry concluded that, in undertaking such investigations: “The AWE and the MoD, its parent organisation for much of the material time, were chiefly concerned with defending themselves against adverse findings at inquests into the deaths of former employees and ex-servicemen and against any claims for damages arising out of deaths or other injuries”.  Rather than taking steps to protect workers who were at risk, “the AWE’s role remained reactive, responding to deaths and claims only as and when they arose”.

Research by AWE involving the analysis of organs taken at post mortem examination was, save for  a single study, undertaken without appropriate consent.  Agreement to the removal of tissue for research should have been obtained in every case, and Redfern stated clearly that “without that agreement, the tissue was not lawfully removed”.

But just how did AWE become involved in this whole shocking affair?

In the 1970s worries about poor safety standards at Aldermaston resulted in an inquiry that led to the Pochin Report into radiological health and safety at AWRE.  The Pochin Report noted deficiencies in the management of health and safety at Aldermaston and deficiencies in standards of construction of various buildings on the site, and made a number of recommendations for improvements.  Following publication of the report in October 1978 some 70 claims for compensation as a result of illness from exposure to radiation were initiated against AWRE.  The deaths from cancer of two radiation workers within a very short time of each other in 1979 were a major concern, and AWRE realised that the deaths were likely to provoke a good deal of adverse publicity for the Establishment.

Worried not only about the likely costs of settling claims which might be brought against MoD by radiation workers – which civil servants grossly overestimated as costing more than £100 million – but also that the outcome of claims could damage both the UK's military and civil nuclear programmes, AWRE and the MoD were keen to obtain evidence from investigations which would help the government defend claims for compensation.  The result was the unlawful removal of organs from the bodies of deceased AWRE workers.

The Redfern report also exposes AWRE's involvement in a study of thyroid glands removed following post mortem examinations at a hospital in Cumbria to investigate the uptake of the iodine-129 isotope by the human body.  At the time scientists in the study claimed that the findings could help the police in the forensic examination of corpses.  However, the Redfern Inquiry was told that the real reason the analysis was of interest to AWRE was because it was suitable for investigating activities at nuclear reprocessing plants in other countries. The Inquiry stated, with regards to this study, that it “has seen no evidence that appropriate, or indeed any, steps were taken to obtain the consent of the relatives of the deceased to the removal and analysis of the glands.”

The Redfern Inquiry has highlighted the worries that AWE and the wider nuclear industry had about the impact of radiation on the health of its workers.  Although publicly stating that exposure to low level radiation does not result in adverse health impacts, it has become clear that in secret the nuclear industry had real concerns about what regular radiation exposure may do to the human body.  Rather than take steps to prevent exposure of workers and the public to radiation, the industry was more interested in obtaining evidence to defend itself from legal action from former workers and their families.

The level of malpractice and the lack of consideration given to ethical issues by the nuclear industry's scientists have shocked many observers.  However, poor practice and arrogant decision making flourish where there is no open scrutiny of public officials, and the secrecy and lack of openness at AWE and across the nuclear industry were surely major factors in creating the climate where scientists and doctors felt able to take such dubious steps.  Much of this secrecy and suspicion still remains.

For the families of workers involved in this sorry episode the Redfern Inquiry’s findings will hopefully bring some degree of closure, but trust in AWE and the nuclear industry has taken another blow from this abuse of power and lack of consideration towards grieving families.

In his statement to Parliament announcing publication of the Redfern report Energy Secretary Chris Huhne apologised on behalf of the government for the abuses of the past.  To date no public apology has been given by AWE for its role in the body parts scandal.

Download a copy of the Redfern report chapter on AWE here:


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