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Friday, 28 January, 2000, 17:06 GMT
The nuclear 'guinea pigs'
Nuclear testing in the South Pacific
Ken McGinley, one of two ex-servicemen seeking compensation for being made to witness nuclear explosions in the South Pacific, has failed in his legal bid against the government. But what did the thousands of young soldiers experience on Christmas Island 40 years ago?

The story of the Britain's nuclear test veterans is rooted in the menacing atomic age of the 1950s and 60s.

It was the height of the Cold War and thousands of British servicemen were despatched to the South Pacific to witness test explosions of nuclear weapons.

Many were in their late teens or early 20s, working their compulsory national service. To them, the warm and exotic climes of Christmas Island were a welcome escape from the hardships of post-war Britain.

Servicemen were told to crouch moments before a detonation
But little effort was made to safeguard their health from the radioactive fallout.

Often they were just 30 miles from the scene of the explosion. Men were told to turn their backs to the blast or wear long trousers instead of shorts.

Ken McGinley, one of two servicemen who led a test case for compensation, says he was ordered to make a ball with his fists and jam them into his eyes as the countdown to detonation began.

He confesses that, against orders, he opened his eyes ever so slightly on hearing the blast of the explosion, and saw the bones of his hands like an X-ray photograph.

In fact, he was experiencing the searing white flash caused by the explosion of a three-megaton nuclear bomb.

The blast, which sounded like a "thousand galloping horses" was so strong it knocked him to his feet. In all he witnessed five test explosions.

More than 30 blasts

Between 1957 and 1962, Britain and the US detonated 31 devices over Christmas Island. More than 12,000 British servicemen and about 1,000 civilians witnessed the explosions.

Many claim that health side-effects such as hair-loss and gastrointestinal ailments, were apparent within days.

Moment of blast: A bomb exploding over the South Pacific
In the ensuing years, thousands have died from cancer. Infertility, illness and birth defects have been attributed to veterans' exposure to fall-out.

But the British government has always denied any direct link between illness and the Pacific blasts, leaving veterans to fight on for compensation.

In 1998, research from Durham University suggested that one in three servicemen died from bone cancers or leukaemia linked to the A and H bomb tests.

Sue Rabbit-Roff, a researcher at Durham University, contacted 2,500 veterans in Britain and New Zealand and established that twice as many of them are suffering from multiple myeloma, a radiogenic cancer, than had been admitted by successive British governments.

Fight for help

In 1983, the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association was formed by Mr McGinley to co-ordinate the fight for assistance.

Their cause was helped when the vets' American counterparts were rewarded with the 1988 Radiation-Exposed Veterans Compensation Act, which recognised several cancers that could be a result of radiation exposure.

Recently the Ministry of Defence began to fund an on-going study by the National Radiological Protection Board to see if any new evidence links cancer cases with the nuclear tests.

Meanwhile, Mr McGinley continues to press his case for compensation. The latest knockback from the European Court of Human Rights, which has refused him an appeal, leaves little chance of further legal recourse.

But he has pledged to carry on campaigning for recognition from his former employers.

See also:

09 Jun 98 | UK
A-test veterans' court hope
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