Thursday, July 28, 2011

UK: Nuclear veterans long court battle goes on

Veterans involved in Britain's nuclear weapons tests in the 1950s are once again taking their case for compensation to the court.

Amongst them is the widow of an RAF pilot who has fought for answers since her husband killed himself at the age of 44. Squadron Leader Eric Denson had been ordered by the Royal Airforce to fly his Canberra aircraft through a nuclear mushroom cloud 18 years earlier so that measurements might be taken.

Soon after his return he began to feel ill. "Eric started vomiting that night and it lasted 21 days," his wife Shirley says. She had expected a healthy tanned man to return to her but instead "we got a sickly young man," she said.

Eric committed suicide, his third attempt, "because he couldn't bear it anymore," she says. He had taken part in Operation Grapple Y [Video: YouTube], a nuclear test which took place on April 28, 1958, over the ocean off the coast of Christmas Island. But he is only one of hundreds who are fighting for justice.

While some just want the Ministry of Defence to admit that what happened that day over a tiny coral atoll in the Indian Ocean led directly to the suffering and deaths of many veterans, others want financial compensation. Shirley is thinking more of her four children who have been deprived of a father [Scotsman].

While Denson was exposed to very high levels of radiation as he flew unprotected into the nuclear cloud, on the ground hundreds of others were also put at risk.

Amongst them was Sapper Ken McGinley who was sitting on the beach when the bomb was detonated over the ocean. He remembers the noise and a flash of light so bright that when he opened his eyes a fraction he could see the bones of the hands he had jammed into his eyes as clearly as an X-ray.

"The noise was deafening, like a thousand horses thundering towards you," McGinley says. "The man next to me broke down and cried."

Talking to the BBC, McGinley said he and his fellow military personnel had been given no protection. "On Christmas Island I witnessed five bomb tests," he says. "Basically we had no protection and warnings at all. All we were told to do was to stand and look at the bomb [and] cover our eyes up in case we got blinded by the flash."

More than 1,000 ex-servicemen say the exposure to radiation during the tests conducted between 1952 and 1958 left them with ill-health. However many have failed in their bid to get justice.

A lower court has said nine out of ten lead cases were brought too late to be considered. Meanwhile the Ministry of Defence has consistently denied any connection between the test and the health of the veterans, contesting the claims since 2004.

Chronic health problems cited by the veterans include cancers, skin defects, fertility problems and birth defects in their children.

In June 2009, the High Court gave the current group of veterans the right to sue the Ministry of Defence. Veterans who served in the Army, Royal Navy and Air Force, as well as personnel from New Zealand and Fiji, were all exposed to radiation.

Time is running out for the veterans who are said to be dying at a rate of three every month. According to research carried out by Durham University around 30% of servicemen died from bone cancers or leukaemia linked to the atomic and hydrogen bomb tests.

The difficulty for veterans is in proving a causal link between the tests and the illness they have contracted. However British scientist Chris Busby says that they may be better able to prove the effects from providing evidence of damage to the chromosomes of the veterans' children. Dr Busby was appointed as Representative to the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association in 2007.

Britain carried out a series of nuclear weapons tests in mainland Australia, the Montebello islands off the west Australian coast and on Christmas Island, in the Pacific in the 1950s.

The tests were conducted against a backdrop of decolonisation and the growing Cold War threat, and with the Britain attempting to develop nuclear weapons. Known as Operation Grapple there were nine tests in all which led to Britain becoming a nuclear power [Video: YouTube].

For the veterans still fighting for compensation it has been an arduous and long battle. But it it is far from over. Even if they receive a pay out it is more than that for some. "We just want to get justice," says veteran Ken McGinley.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

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