Updated: Aug 4, 2020
Around the world, nuclear powers realised their test veterans were suffering and needed help. But not Britain.
In spite of the fact that it rendered nuclear weapons obsolete, those nations who had them denied for decades they were capable of harm. But slowly, one at a time and with mounting evidence both anecdotal and scientific, they changed their tune.
Mirror Special report by Susie Boniface (extracted from https://damned.mirror.co.uk/)
First was the USA, where Ronald Reagan in 1984 signed into law a bill providing compensation and research for veterans of nuclear tests and those who took part in the Hiroshima and Nagasaki clean-ups.
A speech he gave at the time noted there was no scientific proof between service and reported illness and birth defects, but “there is some uncertainty on this point”.
He added: “Veterans deserve to know the truth about the consequences of their exposure… and they should not live in fear if that fear is unjustified. This bill will facilitate the search for that truth, and I am therefore pleased to sign it.”
In 1990, a further act provided up to two payouts of $75,000 for any of a list of 21 radiogenic cancers, to veterans or spouses. It also gave $50,000 to civilians living downwind of the blasts.
In 2018 Congress heard that 45,000 people had shared a total of $2billion since the act was passed.
New Zealand & Australia
New Zealand came next, giving the tests an ‘emergency’ status in 1998 which relaxed the evidential rules for war pensions. A year later the Reeves Report found no scientific evidence that veteran families’ illnesses were due to radiation, but nevertheless recommended they be given access to medical and social care, as well as genetic counselling.
It said “scientific analysis could not provide a categorical assurance to dispel children’s belief that they’d been harmed by their parent’s service”, and “the government has a duty to look after them”.
The government accepted the recommendations in full. Veterans’ Affairs Minister, Don McKinnon, said: “It was just the right thing to do.”
In 2002, New Zealand test veterans were given a Special Service Medal from the Queen. In 2005 a study found many of them were suffering chronic stress which was affecting their quality of life.
In 2006 Australia gave all her test veterans access to healthcare for any cancer, whether they were considered radiogenic or not. It was the “appropriate action”, said the government, “despite the lack of association between cancer rates and radiation exposure”.
A year later it published a list of illnesses presumed to be due to radiation for war pension purposes, similar to the US scheme, and also produced a commemorative medallion for all military and police veterans, or civilians, who took part in or provided support to the testing programme.
In 2017 Australia gave its veterans a ‘Gold Card’, entitling them to universal free healthcare.
Vladimir Bentsianov is almost blind, 60 years after watching the Russian bomb tests on the Kazakh steppes. In 1954 he was ordered to within 900 yards of the target, just 40 minutes after the blast, and later developed a brain tumour. In 1989 he set up the Committee of Veterans of High Risk Troops, and helped win Kremlin recognition for his comrades. They were all given the Order of Courage – one of Russia’s highest military honours.
The veterans get pensions that bring their income up to more than half that of the average earner, and if they have a radiogenic illness they can get a further payout.
He told the Mirror in 2007: “We are special people and it doesn’t matter where we’re from – Russia, America or Great Britain. We have risked our lives and sacrificed our health for our motherlands.”
He added: “I hope... that the soldiers we once taught were the enemy will win the same victory that we have. We should not die as the forgotten ones.”
As well as discounts on rent and free public transport, the Russian veterans are also given pride of place in military parades.
In 2008, Canada agreed to pay $24,000 to around 700 ex-servicemen who had been present at American and British tests, and 200 others who helped on the clean-up operations after two accidents at the Chalk River nuclear reactor in the 1950s.
Survivors told how the Americans used them “as guinea pigs” and put them in a trench 1km from the target, which collapsed on them during the blast. After being dug out, they were marched into Ground Zero, ordered to dig in and take up battle positions.
Some further payments were made to those who had died, but a class action lawsuit failed when the government argued it had been brought too late for a fair hearing.
Isle of Man
The same year, the Isle of Man’s Tynwald Court voted to give a one-off ‘assistance’ payment of £8,000 to its eight nuclear test veterans.
Former minister Eddie Lowey, who used the Sunday Mirror’s 2002 dossier as evidence presented to the court, said: “We tried going through the British tribunal system but it was too slow. I realised these veterans simply didn’t have time to wait… it was backed unanimously.”
China’s Communist regime is notoriously secretive, but it is known that it carried out 45 atmospheric and underground nuclear tests in the Gobi Desert between 1964 and 1996.
It is thought 100,000 soldiers were involved, who report cancers, undiagnosable conditions, and birth defects in their children. Male and female soldiers in what was known as Unit 8023 say they were sent into the blast zone to collect radioactive debris with their bare hands, with only gas masks and goggles to protect them.
In 2009 a Japanese professor used computer modelling to estimate the Chinese bombs had given 190,000 people cancer, and led to 35,000 deformed or miscarried children.
Danny Stillman, a former US nuclear scientist, was given access to the Chinese facilities and said they included a full-scale underground replica of a Beijing subway station.
He said: “Some of the videos they showed me were of People’s Liberation Army soldiers riding on horses – with gas masks over the noses and mouths of both the horses and the soldiers – as they were riding towards the mushroom cloud of an atmospheric surface detonation.” Some brandished swords.
In 2008 the government announced it had started to pay “subsidies” to veterans, but gave no details. It has been reported they are rated according to their disabilities, and receive between $6 and $20 a week.
As previously mentioned, France reversed its position in 2009 to pay compensation and in 2017 Emmanuel Macron vowed to settle hundreds of rejected claims in full.
In 2015 Fiji’s president Frank Bainimarama – the son of a test veteran – gave £3,000 each to 24 survivors of those sent to Christmas Island to take part in the British tests.
He said at the time: “We hope Britain follows our example. Fiji is not prepared to wait for Britain to do the right thing – we owe it to these men to help them now.”
Paul Ah Poy, president of the Fiji Nuclear Veterans Association, was a naval engineer when ordered to Christmas Island where he manned a lighter shuttling goods between ship and shore.
He witnessed 3 H-bombs and 4 A-bombs, and recalls once being asked to take 60 barrels of radioactive waste four miles out to sea and dump it.
Later, his hair came out in tufts, his fingernails dropped off, his gums bled, and Paul had 59 round growths removed from all over his body.
His first wife lost three pregnancies in the first trimester, and left him. His second wife gave birth to a son who as a baby had undiagnosed swellings on his arms, legs and face that came and went. He survived to adulthood but is infertile.
Paul, then 81, said in 2017: “I had a daughter Anne, but she only lived for 3 and a half years. One day she was sitting on the floor, she just lay down and went to sleep and didn’t wake up again. When she started to have breathing problems, I used to take her around to all the doctors in Suva. I was tired from carrying her round from doctor to doctor, but they all said there is nothing wrong with your daughter, until the day she died.”
Israel and North Korea
There are two nations whose treatment of nuclear veterans is unknown. Israel, which is thought to have detonated a nuclear bomb in 1979 with help of the South African navy, has never discussed them.
The People’s Republic of North Korea that bragged about exploding an H-bomb in 2017, is yet to reveal what, if anything, happened to those who took part in the programme.
Those test veterans who are recognised still argue for more. No government has given an unqualified apology, and none has admitted responsibility for all their reported illnesses, nor the birth defects of their children.
Medals, healthcare and military parades help, but they do not answer all the questions.
But most nuclear powers do something, and have agreed that, in the absence of precise science, they have a moral obligation to honour those servicemen who common sense says were ordered into harm’s way.