Published on
the Times Online (UK)

British Government 'Snuffing Out' Compensation for Nuclear-Test Veterans

Frances Gibb

British nuclear test veterans and members of their families stand outside the High Court, in London January 21, 2009. Around 1,000 ex-servicemen who took part in the tests in the 1950's began their legal battle to seek compensation today, claiming they were used as human guinea pigs to study the effects of radiation and suffered from serious ill health as a result, a press release from the group's solicitors said. (Reuters/Andrew Winning/Britain)

The Government was accused today of seeking to "snuff out" compensation claims of up to £100 million for veterans contaminated during nuclear and atomic tests in the 1950s.

It has resisted the claims "with the utmost determination and all the colossal resources - legal, financial and scientific at its command," Benjamin Browne, QC, representing more than 1,000 veterans, said.

Yet even though the Government accepted scientific evidence "of the highest repute" demonstrating a link between the veterans' exposure to radiation and cancer, lawyers "seek to rubbish that report at every turn".

Mr Browne told Mr Justice Foskett in the High Court in London that "time and again", governments had told veterans that they had to await compensation until there was scientific proof of the link.

But now that the scientific proof was available, the Government's lawyers argue in a new twist that it too late to bring a claim.

The question for the court, the QC said, was whether it was right that "despite years of prevarication and misinformation accompanied by promise of compensation," the Government should now be entitled to "snuff out" the claims on the new ground that they were outside the legal time limits, he said.

Many servicemen either died very young or suffered from cancers, skin defects, infertility or reduced life expectancy after a series of atomic bomb explosions on Christmas Island in the South Pacific and in the Indian ocean in 1957.

The atomic, nuclear and thermonuclear weapons tests carried out by the Ministry of Defence were designed to improve Britain's nuclear capability. But victims and their families believe that long-term health problems and illness were caused by exposure to radiation.

The veterans were given little protection from the tests and in some cases stood on the beach wearing shorts and sandals.

Today Mr Browne said that the Government had maintained throughout that the tests were carried out in such a way that very few, if any, participants were exposed to thermonuclear fallout.

But their own documents showed that they had not understood the risks entailed or "what they were doing" and "that because of that men were poisoned with radiation".

In one explosion, the yield of the bomb was "probably 70 times higher than the minimum yield anticipated," he said.

"In another, the scientists responsible were said to be ‘nonplussed' with the amount of radioactivity registered. They were ‘most apologetic'."

One document alluded to the "most striking feature" of the procedure being "the penetrating quality of the radioactivity", adding that it was "quite impossible to confine it", the QC said.


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In contrast to the "bland confidence" apparently maintained by the MoD, things did go "seriously wrong". One group of men was so badly contaminated by the penetrating radiation that they were found over days to produce radioactive urine.

Another man was found to be "radioactive above the permissible limit despite four showers and a haircut," Mr Browne added.

"So the Government's own document shows that they did not really know what they were doing and that because of that men were poisoned with radiation."

In view of new scientific evidence "we will be able to demonstrate the Government's case is wrong and in many areas we can demonstrate that the Government's case is wrong simply relying on the Government's own documents."

In contrast to the attitude of the Government, Mr Browne told the judge that the New Zealand Government, who had servicemen taking part in the tests, had shown in common with others a much more sympathetic attitude to their veterans and contributed a large sum of money for research.

The results of that research proved that genetic effects suffered by claimants were due to radiation exposure.

"The veterans say that the case for compensation is made out. But while the MoD apparently accepted the validity of the study its lawyers seek to rubbish that report at every turn," Mr Browne said.

The MoD is seeking to have struck out the veterans' claim at this preliminary stage, arguing that it is now time-barred because it is too long after the event.

"Even more seriously for the very first time in this litigation the Government say not only that this case for compensation has not been made out, but that it is now far too late to make any such claim at all. But only with this new scientific information they could proceed with their claims," he said.

Veterans gathered outside the High Court and packed into Court 73 as the case began.

The judge, who is faced with 100 lever-arch files of documents and nine bundles of legal authorities, has already spent 10 days in private reading documents.

The case continues.


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