It was mid-morning on the 15th May 1957, as a teenager dressed in Action Working Dress with Goggles, I sat at my 'Blast Station' on HMNZS Pukaki's quarterdeck. I happened to look up as the ships photographer recorded the occasion.
It was twenty minutes before the first, of five H-bomb detonations I was to serve at. I never realised how the 1957-58 tour of duty at Operation Grapple, the cold war British Nuclear Weapons Testing Programme, would forever impact on my life, and the crews of two RNZN frigates and their families.
In 1995, a casual comment from fellow Vice-Chair and veteran, Tere Tahi, resulted in establishing the NZ Nuclear Test Veterans Association and 20 years of chairing the group. In that time I found that gaining even the smallest of political recognition for the NZ veterans has been a battle of political lobbying, researching and presenting operational evidence, begging, pleading, constant repetition, Bordering on being dis-respectful, using humour as a messenger, constant rebuttal, in-depth self instruction on scientific and legal protocols, media interviews, trips to France and the UK to speak at scientific conferences and confer with lawyers and other nuclear test veteran groups, constant disappointment, and even unwarranted attacks from another veteran group. Sadly I was made aware and responded to the deaths of the majority two ships crews, most of whom I knew.
NZNTVA's discussions with D/PM Winston Peters played a major part in having nuclear service elevated from peacetime to operational service. It provided better access to war pensions and related benefits. The initiating of the NZ Special Service Medal Nuclear Testing, was due to NZNTVA's efforts.
Over the years NZNTVA became aware of grave situations. For privacy reasons I cannot go into detail. They have involved cancers, cancer deaths, X-Rays and details of malformed children both deceased and alive. Details of nuclear testing related alcohol abuse by veterans, physical abuse of veterans partners, veterans being blamed by their children for the children's medical conditions, suicidal intent and possible nuclear related suicide, extreme nuclear testing stress and anxiety, extreme obsession with unrelated health conditions, miscarriages, stillbirths, serious illnesses in off-spring wives still looking after their sick veteran husband but living apart because of violence, chronic life destroying illnesses. Some of these problems have been recorded by NZNTVA's Ruth McKenzie's collation of the veteran and family health issues. (Dundee University, 2000, Family Health Protocol Study Report, Roff, Preece, McKenzie, Sefton).
A $200,000 government grant was initially proposed by the Rt Hon Winston Peters. After a decade of battling, NZNTVA obtained the grant with the provision that $100,000 only, be spent on research of NZNTVA's choice. NZNTVA chose DNA research to establish, or not, radiation exposure of the veterans. Soon into the research, Massey University advised that they were using inferior probes. Upgrading them would cost another $78,000. It was suggested that the Assay be cancelled. NZNTVA could not use any further grant money on research. It was essential that the complete research programme be completed. Massey was advised that NZNTVA would initiate a fund raising programme. Our small band of veterans, many sick and elderly, and their families, set about setting up raffles, seeking donations, garage sales etc, anything to raise a dollar.
NZNTVA approached various organisations for donations. Massey University received some donated scientific equipment to be used on the research. The local hospital offered free service of their Xray Department, to process some research samples. Eventually NZNTVA members raised, and paid, a further $100,000+ to complete the full Massey University cytogenetic research programme . Such was the determination of the veterans to have the Massey research completed.
Apart from a few dis-satisfied veterans, the NZNVA executive were blessed with no infighting in the membership. NZNTVA received total support, interest, and co-operation in our efforts to achieve its goals.
I cannot begin to explain the disbelief of our veterans, when soon after the release of the mFISH finding of significant DNA damage in the veterans, the late Col. Rick Ottaway, Secretary for VANZ, telephoned the lead researcher, Dr Al Rowland, to issue a thinly veiled threat that Veterans Affairs NZ, would not recognise any research that had not previously been approved by VANZ. This statement, (Grappling with the Bomb, ANU Press, p305), ignored the fact that the research had been approved and funded by Cabinet. It was a strong indication that the Massey Cytogentic Analysis mFish Assay results would not be accepted by Government.
Veterans Minister Collins, set up the 'Ministerial Advisory Group on Veterans Health' consisting of a dozen experts, to review the research. The Advisory Group upheld the research and its finding. Unbelievably, Government does not accept the conclusion of its own Advisory Group. Instead, Government accepts the inferior 2013 'Summary of of Three Studies' that incorrectly states that the mFISH Assay test and control group selection was flawed.
There is a distressing side effect from Governments lack of concern with the mFISH findings. The veterans mis-trust of government was so deep that they would not to be subjected to further research. They considered government would dismiss any findings that indicated resulting test site health damage. As one veteran stated, “We would only be digging a deeper hole for ourselves.” I recognised increased stress and anxiety in the group. Stress creates further health problems. There is also a major concern that if in the future, Genetic research evolves into easier identification of inter-generational genetic damage in the off-spring mFISH, Governments dismissal of DNA damage in the veterans, the off-spring will face a more difficult task in qualifying for genetic research on themselves.
It is unbelievable that 62 years after sitting at “Blast Stations”, serving at 5 detonations, and being involved in other nuclear test site duties, I, and others, find ourselves still battling to have the irradiation of the NZ veterans politically upheld. Minister for Veterans Ron Mark, did in part, respond to our recent campaign. The Minister granted Dr Al Rowland the right of reply to incorrect information related to the Massey genetic mFISH research, and have it placed on the VANZ Website. The Minister however, does not provide any degree of political acceptance of the mFISH Assay results of irradiation of the veterans. If Government has the will to commit its Naval-men to hazardous nuclear weapon experiments, it should have the will to acknowledge the adverse effects to the servicemen’s health.
The nuclear testing issues have had me involved with the most helpful people. Scientists were important. Dr Al Rowland taught me much about the science involved in our research, American Dr Karl Morgan, the 'Father of Physics' and discoverer of “There is no safe dose of radiation.” was of great help, as were a group of European scientists who attended the Paris conference that I spoke at. The most important people were the NZNTVA members, including, Tere Tahi, Ruth McKenzie, Tony Wernham, Neil Balloch. Without their efforts we may never have moved forward.
NZNTVA will continue to campaign to have the important Massey University mFISH finding of irradiation of the veterans, politically upheld. Prime Minister Adern has announced her “Political Moment”. The NZ nuclear test veterans are still waiting for theirs…
Roy Sefton QSM Chair New Zealand Nuclear Test Veterans Association.