Page last updated at 17:18 GMT, Friday, 5 June 2009 18:18 UK

Nuclear ruling 'may come too late'

By Sarah Bell
BBC News

Alan Ilett [centre] and Don James [left]
The veterans want it resolved, before it is too late

"It's a good judgement, but I'm sparing a thought for the poor souls who didn't make it to here," said Alan Ilett, a 73-year-old veteran of Britain's nuclear testing programme of the 1950s.

"It would be nice to see it completed. We just want an acknowledgement of what we have done to serve the country."

Mr Ilett, from Chelmsford, was among those celebrating after ex-servicemen who took part in nuclear tests in the South Pacific won the right to sue the government for compensation.

More than 1,000 say they and their families have suffered ill-health and the government could now face its largest class action yet.

The Ministry of Defence has said that it compensates when liability is proven and argued that claims have come too long after events.

While the judge's verdict was greeted with smiles of relief and the pop of champagne corks, the veterans' celebrations were muted by the sense it had come too late.

Some of the men who assembled on the steps of the High Court are terminally ill, and seven of those involved in the case have died since a court hearing in January.

Long process

All present argued that after years of legal wrangling, it was time for the Ministry of Defence to finally pay compensation before many more of them die.

Neil Sampson, senior partner at Rosenblatt solicitors, told reporters: "We are delighted with the result - our primary regret is that the process has taken so long.

"We still have a further period of perhaps three years before the case can finally be brought to court for trial and sadly, in that time, many of the veterans we are fighting for will have passed away."

Douglas Hern, 73, had been a 21-year-old naval cook dressed in overalls, white protective gloves and balaclava on Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean when one of the bombs was exploded nearby.

He said he was elated by the judgement: "What we hope now is that the government won't try to solve this through a big class legal action and will come to the table and negotiate," he said.

Arthur Hart

Mr Hern, who believes his exposure to radiation caused his 13-year-old daughter to die from cancer, said many ex-servicemen would not live to see the eventual outcome.

Some "won't be here possibly within two or three months," he said.

Arthur Hart, 72, from Warrington, developed 200 benign tumors around his body after witnessing explosions during his national service in the Royal Navy.

He had stood on the top deck of HMS Diana, wearing WWII anti-flash protection as the ship sailed in the aftermath of the tests.

"I was 18 years old and the only place I had been on holiday to was Blackpool. All I knew was I was being sent to Australia, my mum was so excited, telling all the neighbours.

"I've been delighted to give evidence over what happened over there on the ships, sailing through the fall-out. We were told there was no danger and we had no protection.

"What they did to us was morally wrong. If my evidence has helped the widows, then I'd be delighted."

'Won this bout'

One of the widows is Shirley Denson, 75, from Morden in south London. Her husband, Eric, was a squadron leader who was instructed to fly his bomber into the mushroom cloud aftermath of one explosion to check conditions.

He committed suicide in 1976 and Mrs Denson believes this was due to the effect of radiation on his brain.

She was left to raise four daughters alone and has spent years seeking details on what happened to her husband.

"It's taken us all these years to achieve justice. I said years ago that I would take them on and see them in court. We've taken them on and won this bout," she said.

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