Skip to Content

The Plutonium Jubilee – a shameful anniversary

70 years after Britain's atomic test programme began, the British Nuclear Test Vets are still waiting for justice

This month, it is seventy (70) years since Britain launched its atomic test programme in the Pacific, and yet Britain remains the only nuclear power to have withheld recognition from its nuclear test veterans. The British Nuclear Test Veterans have met opposition at every step of the way. It’s a subject I’ve blogged about before. The Daily Mirror calls it Britain’s longest running scandal. 

“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

On 8 June 2022, the (then) prime minister Boris Johnson became the first British prime minister to meet with the British Nuclear Test Veterans. He might not have done so had Labour MP Rebecca Long-Bailey not made an impassioned plea in the House of Commons in November 2021. Remember that in 2015 the the Fijian government awarded 24 British Nuclear Tests Veterans just over £3,000 each, its prime minister saying that they couldn’t wait for Britain to do the right thing. Remember that as recently as December 2020, the government had ruled that the veterans were not deserving of medals recognising their contribution. Boris Johnson gave the vets and their relatives forty minutes of his time. They used it in the most powerful way possible. They told him their stories.

CNS Meeting at Trafalgar Square before the march to Aldermaston
Copyright CND

This facts have not been hidden. Last month I visited the RAF museum at Cosgrove, where a whole bunker is dedicated to the Cold War. There I read a plackard that told me that the Castle Bravo hydrogen bomb produced twice the blast expected. Due to bad weather, this caused the accidental contamination of 7,000 square miles, including the Marshall Islands, which were inhabited. The next plackard reads ‘The effects of irradiation are very serious, and it is possible for DNA, the building blocks of life, to be irrepairably damaged causing cancers and genetic mutations.’

Johnson is three years older than I am. From 1987 to 2005, he was a journalist. From 1994 until 1999, he was a political columnist for The Spectator, and in 1999 he was named the magazine’s editor. After eighteen years of working in an industry where his job was to be informed, and twenty-one years after entering the political arena, he looked the British Nuclear Test Veterans in the eye and told them that he didn’t know. That he hadn’t been ‘educated’.

But it seems that Johnson was moved by the veteran’s stories, because his final act in office – and perhaps a surprise one – was to demand a medal for Britain’s nuclear test veterans and to promised funds for a national commemoration of the Plutonium Jubilee.

But with Britain’s government in flux, it is easy to imagine that this crucial issue might slip from the political agenda.

One of the relatives of the vets who met with Johnson was the actor, Steve Purse. You can read his father’s story here. To mark the 70th anniversary, Steve has also been presenting a series on BBC Radio 4, ‘Fallout: Living in the Shadow of the Bomb’. Part 1 explains why Australia was chosen as the test site, the people who were displaced and the unique habitat that was lost. It’s the missing half of the story.

“It’s not just a story of a former colony being exploited by a colonial power, but that’s part of the narrative.”

Australia has created various memorials to what has been lost. In the gardens behind St George’s Hall in Liverpool, I found this small memorial.

To mark the Plutonian Jubilee, I am giving away 70 copies of my novel, My Counterfeit Self. My poet activist Lucy Forrester joined the CND walk to Aldermaston to protest against nuclear testing. In later life she took up the cause of the British Nuclear Test Vets. If you’d like one of these, visit the book page at digital retailer Smashwords and use the code SK57J. You may like to donate the price of the eBook to BNTVA, the charity for atomic veterans, but what’s more important is that we create awareness. Please, if you can, write to your MP.