I’m delighted to see that Call The Midwife is using its 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, whose birth defects are at first thought to have been caused by thalidomide. After Derek reveals that he served at Operation Grapple, Dr Turner (Stephan McGann) realises that exposure to nuclear radiation could be to blame.
What was Operation Grapple?
Operation Grapple was a covert operation during which a series of H-bombs were detonated at Christmas Island in the late fifties in order to measure the effects of radiation.
A rebel with a cause
I became aware of the plight of the British Nuclear Veterans when researching 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 while in her twenties would have campaigned for the British Nuclear 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 veterans medals. I am not suggesting that they’re not deserving of medals, but what the veterans should have received – and have been continually denied – is compensation.
Around 22,000 personnel were involved, comprised of the Navy, Army, Air Force, Royal Marines, Fijian Army and Navy and the New Zealand Navy, along with the Australian forces. Many of those involved were on National Service. They were ordered to stand and watch as scientists detonated nuclear bombs 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 questions and concerns were met with silence and denial.
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, reporting 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.
Following a parliamentary inquiry in early 2008, the government agreed to fund new studies into veterans’ health and agreed to pay interim compensation of £4,000 each. At the time I completed my research for My Counterfeit Self, the government had announced that they 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, including a reducing number of Atomic Veterans.
In 2015, the British government was criticised by Fiji for refusing to help its nuclear veterans. Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, whose own father was at Christmas Island during testing in 1957 and 1958, awarded 24 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 caused by British H-bombs as part of a scientific experiment to determine the whole body dose of Radiation acquired by Aircrew members.
You can read the government’s full 2017 report here.
In 2020, the government published new guidance on how Nuclear Test 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.
To find out more or make a donation, visit https://bntva.com
Or you might like to read My Counterfeit Self. Right now it’s only 99p. (Correct at time of going to press. RRP £3.99.)