nuclear-news

The News That Matters about the Nuclear Industry Fukushima Chernobyl Mayak Three Mile Island Atomic Testing Radiation Isotope

‘The nuclear bomb was so bright I could see the bones in my fingers’: The atomic veterans fighting for justice

 https://inews.co.uk/inews-lifestyle/nuclear-bomb-bright-bones-fingers-atomic-veterans-2-1930293 24 Oct 22, Veterans of British nuclear testing in the Cold War say they – and their children and grandchildren – are still living with the health effects. And 70 years on, they want to see recognition of their part in the missions

RAF veteran John Lax is about to describe what it’s like seeing a nuclear bomb being detonated. “Even if I tell you what it was like,” he tells i, “you probably can’t really imagine it unless you’ve witnessed it yourself.”

Now 81, Lax was a 20-year-old air wireless mechanic when he was sent to take part in Britain’s nuclear testing programme in the Pacific in 1962.

Like many servicemen, he didn’t know there would be bomb tests when he arrived on Christmas Island, then a British territory,  now a republic named Kiribati. 

“We were told to put on long trousers and a long-sleeved shirt,” he says, “and we had these dark goggles which meant you couldn’t see your hand in front of you. Then we had to go and sit on the football pitch with our backs to the detonation, because if we’d faced it, the fireball would have burned our eyes. 

“When the bomb went off, it was so bright that I could see the spine and ribs of the guy sitting a metre in front of me, like an X-ray. I put my hands over my eyes and could see the bones in my fingers, and could see the blood pumping around my hands. It was 4am but the sky turned blue, like it was daytime. The blast was like the sound of a pistol, except 1,000 times louder. After the fireball, a couple of minutes later, you feel the blast and a strong gust of very hot wind – if you had no shirt on it feels like it would burn through your back – then once the fireball starts to dissipate you get the mushroom cloud.”  

This month it is 70 years since Britain first began developing and testing nuclear weapons, becoming the world’s third nuclear power (after the United States and the Soviet Union).

Between 1952 and 1965, detonations were carried out in Australia and the Pacific, in a series of operations involving the participation of more than 20,000 British service personnel, as well as some Fijian and New Zealand soldiers. Inhabitants of the test areas were moved offshore or to protected areas. 

Read more: ‘The nuclear bomb was so bright I could see the bones in my fingers’: The atomic veterans fighting for justice

Lax, who bore witness to 24 nuclear detonations over 75 days, was at the time given a “film badge”, containing photographic material that was intended to measure the levels of radiation the young men had been exposed to.

“They weren’t much good,” he says, “nobody kept a record of who had which badge, and you’d just put it in a box with all the other badges. These badges are pretty much useless in humid conditions, and Christmas Island was a tropical monsoon climate and very humid. So we had no record of radiation exposure.” 

There were no long-term health studies of nuclear test veterans. Those who were there during the tests at Christmas Island were not given medical examinations when they left, and their health was not studied after they finished their service. Many servicemen – and many islanders – later reported severe health problems, which they believed where due to the radioactive fallout from nuclear bomb tests – from rare cancers to organ failure. 

Some said they had fertility issues and difficulty conceiving, and many of those who did have children and grandchildren reported high incidences of birth defects, hip deformities, autoimmune diseases, skeletal abnormalities, spina bifida, scoliosis and limb abnormalities. Lax’s own health has been OK, but he does wonder about his children, who have both undergone surgery for a series of tumours, one at 14 years old.  

Lax’s nuclear veteran friend has three types of cancer, which he says the specialist attributes “100 per cent to exposure to radiation”.

Another veteran, Doug Hern, who witnessed five thermonuclear explosions, says his skeleton is “crumbling” and has skin problems and bone spurs. His daughter died aged 13 from a cancer so rare that doctors didn’t have a name for it, and he believes all of this is due to the genetic effects of radiation exposure. 

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) says it is grateful to Britain’s nuclear test veterans for their service, but maintains there is no valid evidence to link participation in these tests to ill health.

In 1983, the MoD did commission a study of more than 21,000 veterans, but – while the study found a slightly elevated risk of leukaemia – it concluded that the veterans had experienced no ill health as a result of their nuclear exposure. But nuclear veterans and their advocates have questioned the accuracy of the study.

For years, UK veterans have been campaigning with The British Nuclear Test Veterans Association, and Labrats – an organisation for nuclear test survivors – to be formally recognised, urging the Government to honour the nuclear test veterans’ service and sacrifice with an official recognition medal.

“I was a guinea pig,” says Lax, who believes he was placed there to see what would happen to people when the bomb went off.  

The UK is the only nuclear power to deny special recognition and compensation to its bomb test veterans, of which there are estimated to be 1,500 surviving today.

In 2015, Fiji compensated all its veterans of British nuclear tests in the Pacific, with prime minister Frank Bainimarama announcing: “Fiji is not prepared to wait for Britain to do the right thing. We owe it to these men to help them now, not wait for the British politicians and bureaucrats.”

The United States Radiation Exposure Compensation Act has been providing compensation to its nuclear veterans since 1990.     

Ed McGrath, 84, who was based at RAF Mildenhall in Suffolk, was 18 when he was sent to Australia and then flown to Maralinga to witness a test explosion.

At the Australian base camp we had good food and we had sunshine,” he tells i.

“As an 18 year-old,  you’re travelling to places you can only imagine, but then when we were flown to witness the bombs, that’s where it went dark and nasty. They had the scientists and the engineers there, but I did nothing except stand there being told to put my hands over my eyes and turn my back to the blast. You were going up there to stand in the vicinity of a very powerful bomb 1,000 times more powerful than Hiroshima or Nagasaki.” 

Despite persistent allegations by veterans that they had been used as guinea pigs in the tests, the Ministry of Defence denies this. McGrath is not convinced.

“There was no reason for us to be there, and I think the politicians who are responsible for sending us there must have come to the conclusion that, ‘Well, these lads are the price we’ve got to pay to find out what on earth is going on in the future.’  

Veterans say that Boris Johnson recently at least gave them some hope of recognition, because as one of his last outings as Prime Minister, he met a group of veterans and campaigners and wrote in an open letter: “I’m determined that your achievements will never be forgotten. I have asked that we look again at the case for medallic recognition because it is my firm belief that you all deserve such an honour.” 

Campaigners also showed the Prime Minister evidence that servicemen’s medical records from their time at the tests were missing from archives. Former prime minister Liz Truss, who promised to support their fight when she entered No 10,  had not acted to put these promises into action. After she took office, she dismissed the veterans’ minister Johnny Mercer.

The Government’s Office for Veterans’ Affairs has this month announced it will launch a £250,000 oral history project to chronicle the voices and experiences of those who supported the UK’s effort to develop a nuclear deterrent. However, Lax says this is “too little, too late” and nowhere near what nuclear  veterans should have.

McGrath has spent time worrying and feeling guilty that his family may face health problems because of his exposure to nuclear tests. His granddaughter had a brain tumour when she was a child but he says: “It’s very difficult to link the two directly and it’s not something you want to think about, to be honest.” 

A Brunel University study found in 2021 that nuclear test veterans have double the normal levels of psychological stress for their age. 

A survey and interviews by the Centre for Health Effects of Radiological and Chemical Agents found that most of the veterans report having become anxious in the mid-80s, when evidence first emerged of cancers, rare blood disorders, miscarriages in wives and birth defects in their children.

Yet this July, researchers at Brunel University published a study that showed “no significant increases in the frequency of newly arising genetic changes in the offspring of nuclear test veteran fathers. This result should reassure the study participants and the wider nuclear test veteran community.”

However, it seems that the legacy of nuclear testing has taken its toll in ways that we perhaps don’t yet fully understand, because there are communities of people across the world who feel their lives have been hugely affected by their nuclear veteran fathers and grandfathers. 

Susan Musselwhite, 42, was eight when her father walked out on the family. When she saw him once again in her twenties, he said his leaving had all been down to the mental and physical anguish of being a test veteran on Christmas Island. Musslewhite lives with chronic migraines and Grave’s disease, sometimes barely being able to lift her head off the pillow, spending 90 per cent of her time indoors. “Sometimes I’m like an 80-year-old woman with dementia,” she says. She started to talk to other descendants and discovered that they were saying similar things about their mental and physical health. “I realised I wasn’t going through this alone.  I truly believe that if my dad wasn’t at the test site, I wouldn’t be like this.”

Elin Doyle, an actress who has written a semi-autobiographical new play called Guinea Pigs  about the tests’ generational effect, spent her early years witnessing her nuclear veteran father’s fight for justice. He had a rare form of cardiac sarcoidosis, an inflammatory condition that can result in heart rhythm abnormalities, in his forties. “Many years later,” says Doyle, “he was asked by a specialist whether he’d ever worked with radiation. So somebody else made the link and that was a bit of a shock for him. At that point I’d already had a sibling who was born with a birth defect.” 

Doyle’s father died of heart failure in his sixties. “You can argue it’s because of radiation or not, but he didn’t have the sort of morbidities that would expose him to young heart disease, and we don’t have a history of it in the family, so the belief was that it was linked.” 

Doyle also talks about the many of the veterans’ feelings of betrayal.

“Sending a bunch of 19-year-olds off in the 1950s to work on nuclear tests and assuring them that it’s perfectly safe, and then to find out actually, they probably weren’t safe and quite possibly, the powers that be knew that that was the case – that has an impact on the rest of a veteran’s life.” 

Steve Purse, 47, from Denbighshire, Wales, remembers how his father David, an RAF flight lieutenant, was too scared to talk about his experience of being posted to test nuclear  weapons in 1962 because of the Government secrecy around the nuclear mission.

He did, however, open up about it years later when he developed a skin condition over his arms and legs and the dermatologist asked whether he’d spent most of his life exposed to intense sunlight in the tropics. He said no, he had spent one year in Australia with nuclear tests. The dermatologist said that this was severe radiation damage to the skin.

Steve has a form of short stature, which doctors don’t know how to diagnose. “All they say is that I’m unique,” he says, “but my dad was exposed to alpha-radiation which causes mutation in DNA, so I believe it’s down to that. It feels like nuclear tests have left a legacy of genetic Russian roulette.” 

For veteran McGrath, it feels as though the nuclear tests, and the men who were exposed to them, are a forgotten part of Cold War history. “It’s encouraging, though, that young people are beginning to take notice,” he says.

He did, however, open up about it years later when he developed a skin condition over his arms and legs and the dermatologist asked whether he’d spent most of his life exposed to intense sunlight in the tropics. He said no, he had spent one year in Australia with nuclear tests. The dermatologist said that this was severe radiation damage to the skin.

Steve has a form of short stature, which doctors don’t know how to diagnose. “All they say is that I’m unique,” he says, “but my dad was exposed to alpha-radiation which causes mutation in DNA, so I believe it’s down to that. It feels like nuclear tests have left a legacy of genetic Russian roulette.” 

For veteran McGrath, it feels as though the nuclear tests, and the men who were exposed to them, are a forgotten part of Cold War history. “It’s encouraging, though, that young people are beginning to take notice,” he says.

Advertisement

October 24, 2022 - Posted by | health, Reference, weapons and war

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: