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Call the Midwife highlights British Nuclear Scandal

I’m delighted to see that the BBC is using Call The Midwife’s five-million strong audience to highlight the scandal of Britain’s nuclear tests.

The first episode of series 10 portrays Derek and Audrey Fleming, and newborn Christopher. At first, Christopher’s birth defects are thought to have been caused by thalidomide. After Derek reveals that he served at Operation Grapple, Dr Turner realises that exposure to nuclear radiation could be to blame.

What was Operation Grapple?

Operation Grapple was a covert operation carried out in the Central Pacific in the nineteen fifties. A series of H-bombs were detonated in order to measure the effects of radiation.

A rebel with a cause

I became aware of the plight of the British Nuclear Tests Veterans when conducting research for my novel, My Counterfeit Self, and seeking a cause for my rebel poet activist, Lucy Forrester. It seemed natural that someone who was involved in CND marches in her twenties would have campaigned for the veterans in later life. What I discovered shocked me.

I learned that the largest of the H-bombs was 100 times more powerful ‘Little Boy’, which was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. Call The Midwife’s Stephan McGann is calling on Boris Johnson to award the British Nuclear Test Veterans medals. I am not suggesting that they’re not deserving of medals, but what the veterans should receive is compensation. Every step of their fight for justice has been met with denial.

CND Rally before march to Aldermaston
Copyright CND

Ordered to stand and watch

The tests involved around 22,000 personnel, comprised of the Navy, Army, Air Force, Royal Marines, Fijian Army and Navy and the New Zealand Navy, along with the Australian forces. Many were on National Service. They were ordered to stand and watch as nuclear bombs were detonated in the Central Pacific. Little or no protective equipment was provided. They were simply instructed to turn their backs and cover their faces with their hands. One of those involved in the clean-up operations reported: ‘There would be dead birds and fish waist high and it would take between 9 and 11 days to clear the area.’

While some servicemen suffered symptoms immediately or soon afterwards, for others it was a different story. They appeared to be fine for decades before developing cancers and other rare diseases. Over time, as dots were joined, many veterans became convinced these illnesses and disabilities were related to their exposure to nuclear radiation, but their questions were met with silence and denial.

The fight of recognition and restitution

The British Nuclear Tests Veterans’ Association (BNTVA) is the premier UK charity representing people who have worked with or alongside radioactive material for the benefit of this nation, campaigning for recognition and restitution, as well as sharing its knowledge and heritage. The veterans’ bid to be recognised by the European Court of Human Rights was denied in 1998, which said it had no jurisdiction in the case.

Progress, but no resolution

Then in 1999, researcher Sue Rabbitt Roff at the University of Dundee surveyed 2,500 veterans and their children, and reported unusually high rates of infertility and birth defects. Britain’s Sunday Mirror newspaper took on the veterans’ case in their Justice for Nuke Vets campaign led by columnist Richard Stott (1943–2007). The government continued to deny any links between the veterans’ health and radiation exposure.

In 2007 two scientific studies demonstrated links between the veterans’ exposure to nuclear radiation and health problems:

A Massey University study of New Zealand nuclear test veterans found genetic damage at three times the normal rate – comparable to victims of the Chernobyl nuclear accident.

An independent study by Green Audit looked at long-term effects of radiation exposure in British veterans and their families, finding significantly higher rates of miscarriages and stillbirths, infant deaths, childhood cancers, and inherited genetic deformities.

As a result of the studies, 700 New Zealand and UK veterans launched a class action lawsuit against the British government claiming NZ $36 million in damages. The Ministry of Defence countered with a statute of limitations defence.

“The veterans were in immense danger, serving Queen and country. the massive personal risk they took warrants recognition, as an act of decency.”

Sir John Hayes

Following a parliamentary inquiry in early 2008, the British government agreed to fund new studies into veterans’ health. At the time I completed my research for My Counterfeit Self, it had announced that it would set aside £25million (£5million per year over a five-year period) for an Aged Veterans’ Fund. This sounds reasonable until you break it down. There were approximately two million qualifying veterans at that time, including a reducing number of Atomic Veterans.


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The world is watching

In 2015, the Fijian government criticised Britain for refusing to help its nuclear veterans. Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama’s own father was at Christmas Island during testing in 1957 and 1958. He awarded 24 British Nuclear Tests Veterans just over £3,000 each. He is reported to have said, “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.”

This did not shame the government into action. In 2017, their published stance remained:

“The Secretary of State does not accept, as a matter of course, that those present at UK atmospheric nuclear test detonations and clean-up operations were exposed to harmful levels of ionising radiation as a result of service in these locations in the armed services.”

This, despite documentary evidence that pilots were ordered to fly through deadly radiation clouds as part of an experiment designed to determine the whole body dose of radiation acquired by Aircrew members.

You can read the government’s full 2017 report here.

Why no-fault compensation is not the answer

In 2020, the government published new guidance on how British Nuclear Tests Veterans, who believe they have suffered ill health due to service can apply for no-fault compensation under the War Pensions Scheme. This scheme has no time limits and a low standard of proof. 

But without an admission of negligence from the MoD, there can be no help for their families who have suffered a genetic curse of birth defects, which scientists estimate will last for twenty generations.

“Meanwhile, it is estimated that three veterans die every week, still waiting for justice.”

Susie Boniface, Mirror, 10 December 2020

To find out more or make a donation, visit https://bntva.com

Or to explore the issues further you might like to read My Counterfeit Self.

Update January 2022

In December 2020, the UK Government accepted the recommendation from the Advisory Military Sub-Committee NOT to award the UK Atomic veterans a medal in recognition of their service. The reason given was that the veterans ‘did not meet the Risk and Rigour needed.’ This decision resulted in public outcry. Campaigner, Sir John Hayes, pointed out that the decision to award many medals – including the Queen’s Jubilee medal, awarded to politicians, Royals and members of the armed forces in 2012 – took no account of risk. ‘Even in conflicts, medals are often given to everyone involved in a campaign rather than just those on the front line.’

It is difficult to believe, but since Atomic testing began in 1952, no UK Prime Minister has ever met with the veterans in an official capacity. In partnership with the Daily Mirror’s ‘A medal for Heroes’ campaign, LABRATS have been lobbying to meet with Boris Johnson through their ‘Look Me in the Eye’ campaign. They want to hear his explanation of why he doesn’t think they are deserving.

In June 2021 Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer pledged to help win justice for nuclear test heroes after meeting them to hear about what the Mirror newspaper calls ‘the longest-running scandal in British history.’

It was Labour MP Rebecca Long-Bailey who, in November 2021, finally secured a verbal agreement from Boris Johnson to meet with the veterans, after she made an impassioned plea in the House of Commons.

“These are the tactics of the British state: to deflect onto the victims, use a lack of progress to grind people down, and create mental torture so people cannot fight injustice.”

Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester

In December 2021, in their continued search for the truth, nuclear test veterans met Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Greater Manchester and Steve Rotherham, the Metro Mayor of the Liverpool City Region. They told the mayors about their experiences, and showed them shocking photographic evidence of exactly how close they were to the blast.

70 years on, nuclear test veterans and their families are still waiting for answers

At Christmas 2021, Call the Midwife returned to the story of test survivor Derek Fleming and his wife Audrey as they start a family, and its producer Heidi Thomas says we have not seen the last of them. Shows like this are so important in keeping the issue in the public eye.

It is a shameful fact that the UK is the only nuclear power to have withheld recognition from its nuclear vets. Many readers have told me that their fathers or grandfathers took part in the testing, but admitted they knew almost nothing about it, partly because participants have been subject to the official secrets act. If you can, please write to your MP and ask them to apply pressure to ensure the meeting with the PM is prioritised.