Seventy years after Britain detonated an atomic bomb in the Indian Ocean, troops who took part — sometimes unknowingly — in the country’s nuclear weapons tests are being awarded a medal.
The announcement of the Nuclear Test Medal by the British government on Monday is a victory for veterans and their families, who have been campaigning for recognition for years.
Many now want the health problems they believe they have suffered as a result of radiation exposure to be acknowledged.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the medal was “an enduring symbol of our country’s gratitude” to the testing veterans.
“Their commitment and service have kept peace over the last 70 years, and it is only right that their contribution to our security, freedom and way of life is properly recognized with this honor,” he said.
Sunak attended the very first ceremony for nuclear veterans at the National Memorial Arboretum in central England. The occasion was the 70th anniversary of the UK’s first atmospheric nuclear test on October 3, 1952.
The detonation of a plutonium implosion facility aboard a Royal Navy ship on the Montebello Islands off Western Australia, called Operation Hurricane, made Great Britain the third nuclear-armed nation in the world after the United States and Russia.
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said the participants had made an “invaluable contribution to the security of the UK.”
In the following years, the UK triggered further nuclear explosions in Australia and ocean areas, including Christmas Island.
According to veteran groups, about 22,000 British military personnel were involved in British and American tests in the 1950s and 60s, many of them draftees who did national service after the war.
Veterans, scientists, and officials from Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, and Kiribati who served under British command during the tests between 1952 and 1967 may also be eligible for the British medal.
Many veterans and their families are convinced that there is a link between the tests and the health problems they have suffered and are urging the UK to conduct a public inquiry into the tests.
Some claim they were deliberately exposed to radiation to see how their bodies would react and claim that their medical records were later suppressed.
“The end of the world”
John Morris, who saw nuclear explosions on Christmas Island as a young conscript in the 1950s, told the BBC earlier this year: “I felt I had seen the end of the world.”
“I could see right through my hands how intense the light was,” he said. “It felt like my blood was boiling. The palm trees — which were 20 miles [32 km] away — were burnt.”
Over the decades, numerous studies have investigated allegations of high cancer rates among test veterans and of birth defects in their children, but have not been able to establish a clear connection with nuclear tests.
Successive British governments have denied that troops were exposed to uncertain levels of radiation.
Alan Owen, founder of Labrats International Charity for Atomtest Survivors, welcomed the government’s recognition but said, “We want more.”
“It’s great that the government is starting to recognize veterans,” said Owen, whose father James attended nuclear tests on Christmas Island in 1962. James Owen died in 1994 at the age of 52.
“It will be an emotional day for me because I will represent him and my sister will be there and we will put flowers in his memory.”