Britain’s nuclear test veterans fight for justice
An estimated 22,000 military personnel served at Britain’s nuclear tests in the central Pacific in the late 1950s.
Servicemen who observed the explosions from Christmas Island say they had no protective gear, but were ordered to turn their backs and cover their faces with their hands. Some reported the flash was so bright they could see their bones through closed eyes, like an x-ray. Others were knocked down by the blast and burned by the heat.
Combat engineer Ken McGinley (founder of the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association) said that afterwards he was ordered to clean up piles of dead birds and bomb debris. Men went swimming in the lagoon, ate fish they caught in the blast zone, and drank rainwater collected in tarpaulins – oblivious to any risk from radioactive fallout.
Some servicemen got sick while still on Christmas Island; others became ill after returning home. Some seemed fine for decades before developing cancers and other rare diseases. Nuclear test veterans reported that their wives had high rates of miscarriages and stillbirths, and their children also suffered from birth defects and unusual diseases.
Many were convinced these illnesses were related to their exposure to nuclear radiation in the Pacific. Their questions and concerns were met with silence and denial by the British government. A bid to be recognized by the European Court of Human Rights was turned down in 1998, which said it had no jurisdiction in the case.
Researcher Sue Rabbitt Roff at the University of Dundee surveyed 2,500 veterans and their children in 1999, reporting unusually high rates of infertility and birth defects.
Britain’s Sunday Mirror newspaper took on the veterans’ case in their Justice For Nuke Vets campaign led by Mirror columnist Richard Stott (1943-2007), but the government continued to deny any links between the veterans’ health and radiation exposure.
In 2007 two scientific studies demonstrated links between the veterans’ exposure to nuclear radiation and health problems:
- A Massey University study of New Zealand nuclear test veterans found genetic damage at three times the normal rate – comparable to victims of the Chernobyl nuclear accident.
- An independent study by the group Green Audit looked at long-term effects of radiation exposure in British veterans and their families, finding significantly higher rates of miscarriages and stillbirths, infant deaths, childhood cancers, and inherited genetic deformities.
As a result of the studies, 700 New Zealand and UK veterans launched a class action lawsuit against the British government claiming NZ $36 million in damages. The Ministry of Defense countered with a statute of limitations defense, saying veterans should have made any legal claims within three years of suffering an injury, a tactic that could delay the court hearing for several years.
Following a parliamentary inquiry in early 2008, the government agreed to fund new studies into veterans’ health and agreed to pay interim compensation of 4-thousand pounds each.
Of 22,000 who served during Operation Grapple, only 3,000 are still alive.
Christopher Edward Noone, RAF
British Nuclear Test Veterans Association
It was as though the gates of hell had opened up, a curling mass of white and red-hot superheated cloud twisting and curling inside and out, covering a good percentage of the sky. It was still glowing red with heat up to half an hour later.
Ken McGinley, Combat Engineers
At the moment of detonation there was a flash. At that instant I was able to see straight through my hands. I could see the veins. I could see the blood, I could see all the skin tissue, I could see the bones and worst of all, I could see the flash itself. It was like looking into a white-hot diamond, a second sun.
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