Under A Cold War Cloud

British servicemen who witnessed post-WWII atomic tests over the Pacific blame the bomb—and the government—for a constellation of illnesses
by Albert C. Baggs /STRASBOURG
Time Magazine
March 30, 1998 Vol. 151 NO. 13

On April 28, 1958, British officers ordered Roy Dunstan and other soldiers then stationed in the Pacific on remote Christmas Island to line up on the beach. Their inescapable mission: to witness the explosion of a 3-megaton nuclear bomb. "Bloody hell!" Dunstan, then a 21-year-old soldier, wrote in his diary that same day. "A seething, red-hot, yellow-orange mass, like the birth of another sun, followed by two shock waves. The ball grew and grew, sending up a huge jagged-edged column, the top of which formed into a gigantic mushroom cloud, which bellowed towards us, obliterating the sky. Someone near by said:

‘Christ, what have they done?’ It then rained down on us and most of us got soaked. Then it was back to our tents, get changed, back to work."

For many servicemen during the 1950s and ‘60s, the unthinkable—the detonation of atomic bombs—did become workaday. During those decades, more than 20,000 British men—not to mention countless Pacific Islanders and Australians—witnessed dozens of nuclear tests, all conducted in the name of cold war deterrence. Between 1957 and 1962, the U.S. and British military detonated 31 devices over Christmas Island (now known as Kiribati) alone. The British government claims that in all instances, the explosions took place at a safe remove. But many veterans say that in the days immediately after the blasts they went to military doctors suffering from rashes, gastrointestinal ailments, hair loss, burning eyes—all classic and, even in that era, well-known signs of radiation exposure. And in the years since, many veterans have attributed infertility, illness and early death, as well as birth defects in their offspring, to exposure to nuclear fallout.

Former aircraft electrical fitter Ken Sutton, now 75, witnessed the April 28 test from a runway. "It was like somebody putting a blowtorch across your back," he recalls. "The vegetation was badly scorched." The concussion tossed ashore entire schools of fish. Sutton also watched as Snooper 2, the Canberra bomber flown by 26-year-old Royal Air Force flight lieutenant Eric S. Denson, penetrated the mushroom cloud within minutes of detonation; Denson’s mission was to sample radioactivity.

According to Sutton, the Canberra was in the heart of the cloud for about 10 seconds, and when Denson and his navigator emerged after landing, Sutton saw that they wore "no protective clothing whatsoever." The next day, Sutton donned cotton overalls and re-entered the fuselage for two stopwatch-timed minutes to retrieve radiation monitors. The plane was later quarantined.

The records of these nuclear tests—or at least those documents that have been released—are spotty. They range from diaries and eyewitness accounts, like those from Dunstan, to more dispassionate accounts, such as the military file on Denson that notes that he absorbed "dose gamma 13,000" millirems—the equivalent of 6,500 chest X-rays. Denson, who developed dermatitis on his chest and chronic respiratory and psychological problems after leaving the Pacific, committed suicide at age 44.

And there are the men themselves—or those who are still alive. Roy Prescott, for instance, watched U.S. thermonuclear tests at Christmas Island in 1962; he has been treated for tumors of the arms, head and neck, and two of his children were born with serious defects. "Of five pals who went to Christmas Island together," the former Royal Engineer says, "one has thyroid cancer, one is diabetic, one died of a brain tumor, one died of cancer. Radiation illness can’t always be proved, but there’s a duty of care to these people."

The United States has recognized that responsibility since 1988, when Congress enacted the Radiation-Exposed Veterans Compensation Act, which presumed a service connection for veterans with specific cancers, and in 1990 Congress even offered an apology to U.S. atomic vets. The British government, from the U.K. War Pensions Agency through successive Prime Ministers, has rejected most efforts by these veterans to receive compensation, steadfastly maintaining that the vets were too far away from the detonations to be harmed.

For the British Nuclear Test Veterans’ Association, though, such stonewalling is unacceptable. After failing to get satisfaction in Britain, they have brought their case to a higher judge, the European Commission of Human Rights. Attorney Ian Anderson filed arguments on behalf of three representative victims—Edward Egan, a former naval man, Kenneth McGinley, a soldier, and Lorraine Burns, the daughter of a deceased vet who witnessed five Christmas Island tests and who, at age 4, was herself diagnosed with leukemia. After finding that the vets had a serious claim, the commission sent the case on to the Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, which in November heard oral arguments on the suit, which asks for $2.24 billion for veterans with radiogenic illness.

The difficulty that has faced the plaintiffs all along is a lack of hard evidence. The British Ministry of Defence has said that radiation records are in many cases attached to other classified information, and the National Radiological Protection Board, a government-sponsored agency, reported that records for some 16,000 participants were never kept. As a result, the War Pensions Agency has rejected hundreds of claims by cold war veterans and their kin, including 80 percent of those filed by widows, granting the maximum weekly benefit of $175 to only 17 petitioners. Scotsman Kenneth McGinley, chairman of the B.N.T.V.A., witnessed the April 28 blast as a 20-year-old soldier. He has said that he could see the bones of his hand through his skin, and that after the explosion he went to army doctors with a blistering rash across his upper torso, and then numbness in his legs and bouts of nausea. He is also sterile, unlike his five siblings who have 23 children among them. His army medical records, however, do not mention any of these problems.

The nuclear vets’ claims have also been called into question by a key study by the National Radiological Protection Board, which in 1993 issued an opinion that although test participants seemed to be at a higher risk for liver and bladder cancer and for leukemia, the vets had no "excess" illness. Statisticians also reported that cancer incidence actually appeared to decrease as recorded doses of gamma radiation increased. As a result, the government’s stance hardened: Prime Minister Tony Blair, citing that study—which runs counter to most medical knowledge of the results of radiation exposure—has refused to take action in the case, and attorney James Eadie, who is representing the U.K. in Strasbourg, alleged in court that the vets were spinning "conspiracy theory after conspiracy theory." Government records, said Eadie, show that the plaintiffs had not been exposed to harmful levels of radiation.

The conclusions of the N.R.P.B. study, however, have been called into question by other, smaller studies. Trinity Post 7-45, a private research agency for American veterans based in Portland, Maine, has reported that the average lifespan for about 500 British veterans in one of their studies was 53.8 years, and that nearly three-quarters of the deaths were cancer-related. And a Dundee University study of 455 death certificates reports fatal malignancies in 68.3%--"more than double the normal appearance of cancer deaths in [any] male occupational cohort of the post-war years," according to researcher Sue Rabbitt Roff. Says Otis S. Kerns, an engineer at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency who attended the Strasbourg hearings out of a personal interest in the case:

"It seems to me that too many people are suffering and too many have died to dismiss, out of hand—as the British government seems to be doing—both the reality and the consequences of their exposure to radiation."

In January 1997, the plaintiffs won their first major victory. The European Commissioners found the British government guilty of treating the vets in an illegal and dishonest manner, withholding or delaying the release of their medical records. The commission’s report described, for instance, a 1953 memo entitled "Atomic Weapons Trials" and marked "top secret." It explained that the purpose of the tests was to "discover the detailed effects of various types of explosions on equipment, stores and men with and without various types of protection." And the government, apparently, was well aware of the potentially life-threatening results:

"A pity," reads a confidential memo from Sir Anthony Eden, who was Prime Minister in 1955. "But we cannot help it." . . .

The government could have done more after the fact, however, and it is this inaction--rather than the fact of the tests themselves--that so disturbs the nuclear vets. "Any sensible person would have to agree that, in those times, it was essential we should have the nuclear deterrent," says Eric Denson's widow Shirley. "What offends--what appalls me--is that succeeding governments have turned their backs on these men and their families." A spokesman for the Foreign Office responds that the government's position remains that explained by John Spellar, Parliamentary Undersecretary of State for the Ministry of Defence, in the House of Commons last month. Spellar said that the government stood by the findings of the N.R.P.B. study, and that "the health and safety of the trial participants were regarded very seriously, and that a great deal of trouble was taken over radiological protection."

The 13-judge Strasbourg court panel is expected to rule by this May. If the veterans lose, they have vowed they will continue fighting in the court of public opinion. If they win, they could receive damages for human rights violations--far more than the pension compensation they originally sought. And along with the vets' offspring, Pacific Islanders, too, could begin making claims--in which case the British government could find itself suffering the nuclear tests' fallout for generations to come.

[ Military Personnel exposed: From 1945 to 1992 about a million "atomic veterans" were exposed to ionizing radiation either from being in the vicinity of the detonation or residuals of nuclear weapons. From 1963 (the temporary atmospheric test ban treaty) to 1992 approximately 60,000 Department of Defense personnel, either military or civilian, were exposed during underground nuclear testing at the Nevada Test Site. Efforts to trace and document persons exposed continue. Among the known US service personnel available for study, life expectancy for survivors exposed was found to be 57 years.]