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Nuclear test veterans demand recognition at first meeting with Prime Minister

Britain’s first atomic weapon test in the Monte Bello Islands off Australia (Archive/PA)
Britain’s first atomic weapon test in the Monte Bello Islands off Australia (Archive/PA)

People affected by Britain’s atomic experiments have asked for formal recognition for nuclear test veterans in their first ever official meeting with a prime minister.

A group including a nuclear bomb test veteran, a widow and four descendants told Boris Johnson about their experiences of the tests and the debilitating health problems they suffered as a consequence.

Mr Johnson said the veterans should be recognised for their service and ministers will explore how to mark their dedication.

Alan Owen, founder of the Labrats International charity for atomic test survivors, told the PA news agency: “We met with him and he looked us in the eye and we told him why these men deserve recognition.

“We’re the only country in the world that has not given formal recognition.

“Everybody else has, including the Isle of Man, Fiji, New Zealand, America, France.

“It’s just 70 years of denial by the MoD (Ministry of Defence) to not recognise what happened; it’s not taught in schools, there’s no education”.

The campaigners are also calling for “research into the descendants who suffer lots of genetic problems and birth defects”, Mr Owen said.

Mr Owen’s own father was at Christmas Island during nuclear testing in 1962 and died from heart conditions at the age of 52.

His sister was born blind in one eye, his elder brother died aged 31, and Mr Owen recently suffered a cardiac arrest.

John Morris, the veteran at the meeting, has previously spoken of how he and other low-ranking personnel were used as “human guinea pigs” during Grapple bomb tests at Christmas Island, leaving him to fight prostate cancer and anaemia later in life and lose a child to sudden infant death syndrome.

Mr Morris,  84, who witnessed four nuclear bombs in 1957, and his wife were arrested on suspicion of murder after their son was found dead in his cot. It was later found that the boy had deformed lungs.

Mr Morris, of Rochdale, told the Daily Mirror: “We protected this country by providing the nuclear deterrent, but we’ve been let down by successive governments.

“My wife and I were arrested on suspicion of murder, and I’ve had a lifetime of worry and illness. I had blood and urine taken which his not in my medical records, and I’ve been refused a war pension.”

The newspaper reported that Mr Johnson said that if records had been hidden away “like in The Raiders Of The Lost Ark, or stuff is being stashed in a vault or wherever, by the British government, that needs to be sorted out”.

The Prime Minister said: “These veterans epitomise the true meaning of service, and their selfless commitment has allowed us to enjoy the very freedoms we have today.

“I know I speak for the nation when I express my immense gratitude to those involved in our nuclear testing programme, who have made significant contributions to our national security both then and now.

“It is only right that they are recognised for their service, and I have asked ministers to explore how their dedication can be marked.”

Campaigners gave Mr Johnson a deadline of October to resolve the issue.

Susie Boniface, a journalist who has long reported on the ex-servicemen’s campaign for justice and was at the 40-minute meeting, said the Prime Minister vowed to investigate possible crimes committed by the state against its own servicemen, to open up archives and to reconsider the campaigners’ demand for a medal to mark the Plutonium Jubilee, the 70-year milestone since the first British nuclear test in October 1952.

She told PA: “We’ve been campaigning for a medal since 2018 and they’ve been turned down three times because the medal committee said there was no risk and rigour to their service.”

“We also discussed … the fact that (US President) Joe Biden is giving a medal to America’s nuclear test veterans, including possibly British servicemen who were at the American tests on the instruction of our Government,” she added.

Approximately 20,000 British soldiers, mostly conscripts, witnessed hundreds of atomic tests and were exposed to radiation.

The most notorious was the Operation Grapple Y in 1958 which was over 100 times more powerful than the bombs which levelled Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

There are an estimated 1,500 surviving ex-servicemen of the experiments.

The meeting in Westminster came following a request from Labour MP Rebecca Long-Bailey, with Conservative MP Sir John Hayes, patron of the BNTVA charity for atomic veterans, also participating.

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