Atom bomb veterans deserve justice!

| 19th December 2013
The Baker Shot of Operation Crossroads, Bikini Atoll 25 July 1946. Wikimedia Commons.
The Baker Shot of Operation Crossroads, Bikini Atoll 25 July 1946. Wikimedia Commons.
Britain sent 22,000 soldiers to witness a total of 21 nuclear bomb tests in the Pacific between 1952 and 1958. Since then they and their descendants have suffered from severe health problems. Neil Kinnock believes the nuclear veterans deserve recognition and justice.
It is no coincidence that many of these veterans and their descendants have several similar illnesses which include high incidence of rare cancers and musculoskeletal problems.

When I was Leader of the Labour Party, over 21 years ago, I made a promise to those who served on the British Nuclear Weapons tests between 1952 and 1967:

If we secured the election of a Labour Government, we would address the lack of recognition of the risks they took whilst serving our country, and respond to the issues of untypically poor health that were already becoming clear in those that were still alive.

It was a promise that I was not able to keep but it is a debt that remains with me today. That is why I am adding my voice to their recognition campaign that is currently being waged in Parliament.

I first became involved as an MP when a retired Royal Navy Chief Petty officer, who lived in my Constituency of Islwyn came to my 'surgery'. He had been part of a large group of soldiers, sailors and RAF men that had been ordered to witness nuclear bomb tests in the South Pacific.

In his retirement he was suffering from significant ill health that he believed was a result of being present at the tests. Through him I met others who were experiencing similar illnesses.

Policy of denial

Back in the early 1990's, the Government of the day - advised by the civil servants of the MOD - denied any link between the ill-health of the veterans and the tests. That, sadly, continues to be the position today.

It was never an argument that I accepted. I am even less convinced now when there are twenty more years of history of deaths and illnesses among test veterans.

These men and their families have been campaigning for decades. They rightly feel forgotten by the powers that be. They've been through the courts, and to their elected representatives.

Some progress has been made; the previous Government commissioned the Health Needs Audit, which has helped with practical measures such as improving pathways for veterans through the NHS. But more advances are vital before justice is done.

In recent months, the veterans' campaign stepped up a gear, with a cross-party group of over 80 MPs forming in Parliament led by the BNTVA (British Nuclear Test Veterans Association) and their Patron John Baron MP.

The campaign seeks to secure written or oral recognition from the Prime Minister of the unique service these men gave to their country, and an ex gratia payment of £25 million to set up a Benevolent Fund that would, based on need, support veterans' and descendents' health.

The science can be endlessly debated but, for me and many who hear their true stories, it is no coincidence that many of these veterans and their descendents have several similar illnesses which include high incidence of rare cancers and musculoskeletal problems.

It is clear from the convincing evidence given by the ex-servicemen that they were neither adequately protected nor properly made aware of the dangers to which they were being exposed.

A clear moral duty

It is no coincidence that many of these veterans and their descendants have several similar illnesses which include high incidence of rare cancers and musculoskeletal problems.

Our country, and our Government, therefore has a moral duty to recognise the hazards endured by these men and to give practical meaning to that acknowledgement by providing a Fund that gives assistance to those whose illness can reasonably be related to that experience.

Even those who haven't yet manifested physical health problems, and hopefully never will, have lived with the constant fear of 'what if'. The shadow of the bombs they witnessed all those years ago has clouded their lives.

And that mental anguish is obviously not only felt by the veterans themselves; many of their children wonder whether they have been genetically affected, some even choosing not to have children of their own for fear of passing on damaged genes.

Anyone can imagine the horror of making that painful decision to not have children, something many of us take for granted, and having to tell a partner that children are not part of your future together.

Meanwhile, so many of the veterans who have had children have been blaming themselves for any health problems their family experience. It has been - it still is - a very big dark shadow indeed.

Nuclear veterans 'not unique'?

The MOD, and the new Veterans Minister, continue to argue, however, that these veterans are not "unique". But how many other veterans come back from serving their country worried about passing on health problems which are rationally linked to their service mission to their children and future generations?

In the Health Needs Audit of veterans in 2011, commissioned and accepted by the MOD, 40% of veterans reported problems with their children and grandchildren. Surely that provides a reasonable basis for a shift in policy.

In comparison with other countries who have veterans of nuclear tests, the UK clearly lags behind. A 'table of decency' ranking how other countries have tested their veterans places the UK near the bottom, below the US, Canada, France and the Isle of Man.

Examples include the US and Canada who have financially compensated their veterans - President Reagan went as far as expressing the USA's gratitude, over 30 years ago. And the Government of the Isle of Man has sought to recognise their nuclear test veterans - Manx veterans will have served in the British forces yet the UK Government does not feel it appropriate to follow their lead.

The government must act

The current Veterans Minister, Anna Soubry, in a recent Commons debate attempted to discredit the 'table of decency' but she was ill-advised by her civil servants as she made a number of inaccurate statements, so far uncorrected.

I don't doubt that the warm words of Ms Soubry in recent weeks are sincere. It is time now, however, for senior policy makers to reconsider the issue so that the Prime Minister can stand up and give these veterans the acknowledgement which they need and have earned.

The shadow of the bomb will never leave these men but they will live knowing that the nation recognises the debt to them and their families.

By witnessing those atom bomb tests the veterans helped to give credibility to Britain's nuclear capability and to sustain the UK as a power on the world stage. They did it as a duty. The Government must now honour its obligation to them.

On Wednesday 27th November, Veterans and their descendants handed in a petition to 10 Downing Street after marching to the Houses of Parliament to make their presence felt to MP's. I have since pressed ministers to give specific recognition to British veterans of nuclear weapons tests in the Pacific.

And I will be asking the House of Lords to debate the justified request for recognition of our country's Nuclear Veterans. I hope that, as more voices are raised in support of their case, the Government will respond with positive action.

It's time we tell them how much we appreciate what they did for us - and why we think they deserve practical gratitude.


See also "Cancer, nuclear bombs and dirty tricks" by Chris Busby, also published today in The Ecologist.



Neil Kinnock is a member of the House of Lords and a former Leader of the Labour Party.

To support the BNTVA and their campaign write to your Member of Parliament and ask them to speak up for our Nuclear Veterans. 

This article is an updated version of an article first published by BNTVA.