Almost a thousand surviving veterans of British nuclear tests in the South Pacific launched a bid for compensation at London’s High Court this week, claiming that they have suffered repeated and recurring health problems due to the 1950s tests.
The 970 ex-servicemen from Britain, New Zealand and Fiji claim they have suffered illnesses - including cancer, fertility problems and skin defects - due to exposure to atomic weapons radiation fall-out during the tests, and that the British government at the time did not do enough to protect them from the fallout.
The tests concerned took place on Australia’s mainland, on Christmas Island, and on Monte Bello Islands between 1952 and 1958. The Ministry of Defence is expected to argue that the case cannot go ahead as it is “time-barred” - launched outside the legal time limit. The three-week hearing will decide whether a full trial goes ahead.
Before a courtroom packed with members of the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association, Benjamin Browne, the claimants’ lawyer, cited numerous reports showing links between radiation exposure and cancer incidence.
He told judge David Foskett: “The veterans say that the case for compensation is made. Yet, not only has the government failed to offer that compensation, it resists all these claims with the utmost determination and all the colossal resources, legal, financial and scientific, at its command.”
He also pointed out that, after the many years during which claims for compensation have been made by the veterans, this is the first time that the Ministry of Defence has argued that it is too late to take the case to court, and he argued that such a defence is disengenuous.
Ministry of Defence lawyers have argued that despite the fact that the veterans had suffered a variety of illnesses since the tests more than 50 years ago, they cannot prove that their health problems were caused by the radioactive blasts.
Ministry of Defence lawyer Charles Gibson, told the court that while the veterans were owed a “debt of gratitude” for their service, they had nothing to prove that their exposure to radiation from the bomb blasts caused their health problems.
“These claimants have alleged that they have obtained evidence to prove each of the injuries was caused or materially contributed to by low dose radiation,” he said, “but we submit that the evidence they have deployed in support of the individual cases doesn’t come remotely close to proving causation. We submit that none of the cases can properly proceed.”
The veterans from Britain, New Zealand and Fiji claim they were used as guinea pigs during the tests so the British government could study the effects of radiation fallout. About 25,000 servicemen from Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Fiji took part in the tests, which started in 1952 on the Montebello Islands off the West Australian coast. More tests were held at Emu Field and Maralinga in South Australia as well as on Christmas Island (now Kiritimati) and Malden Island in the Pacific Ocean.
Charles Gibson rejected claims that the veterans were deliberately exposed to radiation fallout, saying that such allegations were an attack on the scientists and public servants who designed and implemented the tests and who were also present at the blasts.
He also noted that an Australian royal commission held in the mid 1980s into the tests at Maralinga had heard evidence that at no time were servicemen used as guinea pigs. Instead, mice, goats and rabbits as well as manikins dressed as men were used to test the effects of the blasts.
“No personnel were treated as guinea pigs,” he said, “The royal commission found that men weren’t themselves target response items.”
Evidence obtained by lawyers acting for the veterans, but previously undisclosed, suggests that in addition to the usual fallout from the nuclear blasts, the bombs themselves were plated with depleted uranium - a substance later used in conflict zones such as Iraq and elsewhere.
The outcome of the British court case is being closely monitored in Australia as nuclear test veterans there prepare to launch a class action against the Australian Government. In the 1950s Australia allowed the British to test nuclear bombs in its remote desert areas with the test sites being patrolled by Australian police.
One veteran involved in the compensation claim is the seventy-year old Malcolm Harris, of Masterton, New Zealand. He has suffered from a wide range of illnesses that he directly attributes to the tests he took part in. As a member of the New Zealand Nuclear Test Veterans committee, Mr Harris is speaking on behalf of himself and two others.
Mr Harris has suffered for years from rashes and dermatitis, has been diagnosed with post- traumatic stress disorder and anxiety problems, and also suffers from deafness and joint pain in his back, knees and hips.
However, he says he is more worried about the problems faced by his eldest son, James, who was diagnosed early in life with Crohn’s disease, which causes chronic inflammation of the small and large intestine. He spent most of the 1980s in Wellington Hospital.
“We thought we had lost him on three occasions,” Mrs Harris said.
His younger son, Stuart, is generally in good health but Mr Harris and his wife, Margaret, fear for future generations of their family, because of the fact that problems caused from exposure to radiation can skip generations only to appear later.
As a crewman aboard HMNZS Pukaki, Mr Harris experienced five bomb tests in the Pacific in the late 1950s. “We were at ground zero as it was called, and after the explosions we steamed right through the radiation cloud,” he said. After the tests, he and the others involved were issued with a special service medal “for hazardous duty”.