Nuclear Test Veterans

– in the House of Commons at 12:30 pm on 4 February 1998.

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Photo of Mr Llew Smith Mr Llew Smith Labour, Blaenau Gwent 12:30, 4 February 1998

This debate is about a sad saga, of which successive Governments cannot be proud. The lives of thousands of British service men and medical auxiliaries have been ruined because politicians wanted to satisfy their egos by building atomic bombs that they claimed were part of our national defence. They were tested thousands of miles away in Australia, Nevada and small Pacific islands without the permission of the indigenous people. Successive Governments have seen fit to use other people's backyards to test nuclear weapons. That surely cannot be right.

I have provided the Minister with a list of questions, and I have enough confidence in him to know that he will answer them in detail. In 1957, the then Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, told the House: The present and foreseeable hazards, including genetic effects, from external radiation due to fall-out from the test explosions of nuclear weapons, fired at the present rate and in the present proportion of the different kinds, are considered to be negligible."—[Official Report, 5 March 1957; Vol. 566, c. 178.] That was, to say the least, a false statement.

I have raised this matter because of the concerns of the British nuclear test veterans, who were victims of the tests that were conducted on Christmas Island in 1958–59. They believe, as I do, that their ill health was caused by radiation and the toxic pesticide DDT that was used 40 years ago. I am sure that the Minister will accept that those service men did not go to those Pacific islands for a holiday in the sun. They went as loyal British soldiers and as medical auxiliaries, and they deserve better than to be fobbed off for all these years.

Ministerial denials of responsibility were not believed by the European Commission of Human Rights, to which the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association took its case on behalf of some of the 22,000 veterans who witnessed atomic tests in the Pacific in 1958. On 27 January 1997, the British Government were found guilty: the commission found that they had violated article 6(i) and article 8 of the European convention on human rights, and that the atomic veterans had established a reasonable basis for their anxiety and concern that they had been subjected to radiation experimentation by their own Government. It further found that the Government's contention that inanimate dummies, not live service men, had been exposed to radiation was unconvincing.

Deplorably, the Conservative Government refused to honour the commission's recommendations. I trust that this Government, under new Labour, will reverse that decision.

One of the first parliamentary questions that I asked when I entered the House in 1992 was what information the Government had received from the American Government about the public hearings held in Vegas, which is near the Nevada site where Britain tested its nuclear bombs from the early 1960s to just a few years ago. The hearings dealt with the environmental and radioactive contamination at the site from British bombs. The reply to my question was, "None."

If Britain were forced to pay the proper clean-up costs for testing Polaris and Trident warheads in the desert lands of the Navajo indians, it would run to hundreds of millions of pounds. I suspect that the Government have not allowed for that in their nuclear defence budget.

Many journalists, such as Rob Edwards in the New Scientist and Alan Rimmer, Dean Rousewell and David Brown in the Sunday People, should be congratulated on their investigative work, which has been reported extensively in the press recently.

There is still considerable toxic contamination on Christmas Island. I am totally unconvinced by the Minister's written replies to me on this issue. He asserts: there is no radioactive contamination which would present a hazard to the inhabitants of Christmas Island."—[0fficial Report, 17 November 1997; Vol. 301, c. 64.] The specific questions that I want the Minister to answer have been provided by the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association. First, do the Government agree that they owe a duty of care to nuclear veterans and their families? Secondly, does the review of the veterans' pension scheme, as proposed by the Defence Minister, include a review of the new evidence of radiogenic injury to veterans of the United Kingdom nuclear weapons test programme that is emerging from the Dundee database study? Thirdly, are the Government aware of the Dundee study? If so, will the Minister comment on that study, and on the peer support of Dr. David Hole, director of the west of Scotland cancer surveillance project?

Fourthly, is the Minister aware of the undertakings of the National Radiological Protection Board's spokesperson on the "Frontline Scotland" programme that the Dundee university medical school researcher should have access to the updated database held by the NRPB for her secondary analysis? What action will the Minister take to ensure that such access is provided?

Fifthly, does the Minister agree that more than 22,000 men who were sent to the nuclear weapons test, and their families, unfortunately constitute a most important study group for cancer research, and that appropriate funds should be made available for that research?

Sixthly, an agreement reached in 1962 between the United Kingdom and United States Governments allowed the US Government to carry out nuclear weapons testing no more than 25 miles and no less than five miles from Christmas Island between April and July 1962. During that period, 28 nuclear explosions took place, in which 300 British service men participated. The US Government stated that they would indemnify Her Majesty's Government as a result of claims for compensation by British service men arising out of those tests. Do the Government agree that UK participants qualify for US compensation under that agreement?

Seventhly, the Government rely on the final NRPB report adopted in November 1993, which found that, statistically, UK veterans were not harmed by their participation in the Australian or Pacific nuclear tests. However, in December 1993, the UK Government signed an agreement with Australia for payment of £20 million sterling to the Australian Government for the settlement of all claims that arise out of the death or injury of any person, excluding UK veterans, as a result of the United Kingdom's experimental nuclear test programme in Australia.

Will the Government explain the rationale for handing over £20 million of taxpayers' money to fund compensation for Australian victims of nuclear tests, including Australian veterans, while maintaining that there is no evidence that the UK service men who participated in the same Australian tests were harmed? That does not make sense to me.

Let me now comment on research conducted by Sue Roff of the Dundee centre for medical study. I shall deal first with her research relating to death certificates. A total of 22,000 service men and medical auxiliaries could now be regarded as test veterans, of whom 10 per cent.—2,200—were members of the association. Of those 2,200, 600 have died, and approximately 455 death certificates have been sent to the association. Two thirds of those 455 veterans had died of cancer, compared to between a quarter and a third of the general population.

Some may suggest that those people joined the association because they wanted pensions or compensation, but that is not so. Only two thirds of the widows of the victims supplied the association with death certificates, which does not seem to imply that, when their loved ones died, they were preoccupied with the question of compensation.

The cancers that caused the deaths were on the list of 15 cancers that American legislation stipulates as eligible for compensation. Medical science recognises those 15 cancers as potentially radiogenic. The conclusion tentatively reached in the study is that veterans have at least a double chance of dying of a radiogenic cancer. The average age of those who died was 55, compared with a figure of between 65 and 70 for the general population. There seems to be strong evidence of radiation-induced cancer deaths, because they all fall into those 15 categories.

If we took a sample of 2,200 former Members of the House of Commons and found that 600 were dead, it is very unlikely that the patterns of death would be the same as that of this group of nuclear veterans. The pattern of coal-mining deaths would be different again. Each of the three groups is subject to specific occupational hazards. The nuclear veterans suffered radiation hazards; coal miners suffer bronchial hazards. I would not dare to suggest what Members of Parliament are likely to die of.

The other aspect of Dr. Roff's study concerned the veterans who were still alive. The conclusions reached so far are, to say the least, alarming, not just for the immediate families of the veterans who died, but for their children and grandchildren. The results of the study of the health of the surviving veterans and their children and grandchildren will be reported before Easter, but the preliminary analysis shows a clear pattern of radiation injury in the veterans, their children and their grandchildren. Their deaths and injuries were highlighted vividly in The People some weeks ago.

I was disappointed by the Minister's dismissive reply to questions about Dr. Roff's research. He said: There is no substantial evidence in her work which would undermine in any way our total confidence in the conclusions of the report published by the National Radiological Protection Board in 1993."—[Official Report, 22 January 1998; Vol. 304, c. 625.] I would have expected such a response from a Conservative Minister, but not from a Minister who obviously epitomises all that is good about new Labour.

Photo of Brian Jenkins Brian Jenkins Labour, Tamworth

I find this difficult to understand. When people wrote to the Ministry a few years ago, the Ministry denied that dosimeters had been issued. When photographic evidence was provided, the Ministry said that the reason was not related to any risk that might be incurred; it said that the intention had been to make a film for training purposes, to show people what the meters looked like. This has been a catalogue of misinformation and deceit from day one. The trouble is that the small number of veterans who went down the dirty path were used as a control group.

Photo of Mr Llew Smith Mr Llew Smith Labour, Blaenau Gwent

My hon. Friend is right. The same has happened on other occasions and in other instances. I tabled dozens of questions about problems relating to Gulf war syndrome and organophosphates, but was told by the then Government that there had been no problem, and that organophosphates had not been used. Some months later, however, the Government had to make a statement saying that I had been misled.

The Minister should bear in mind the fact that Roff is using the methodology that has frequently been used in other studies conducted by the same people who undertook the MOD studies. Her methodology is perfectly legitimate, but it calls into question the validity of the findings of major studies using another methodology. That is a common experience in medical and scientific research; what is less common is the refusal of major Government agencies to accept the implications of the findings. That is why today's debate is taking place.

Let me remind the Minister what was written in a confidential document—declassified by his own Department on 26 January 1985—by the rear admiral who was in charge of Britain's first atomic bomb in 1951. In a memorandum to Vice-Admiral Brooking, he wrote: radiological safety must be one of the chief concerns of the naval commander … I believe that all Government servants are in fact entitled to compensation for injury on duty". I agree, and I trust that the Minister agrees.

In March 1991, the then Member of Parliament for Stoke-on-Trent, South ended his Adjournment debate on nuclear test veterans with the words What the men need is justice. "—[Official Report, 20 March 1991; Vol.188, c. 377.] That is just as true today. It is unforgivable that those men have had to wait seven long years, when so many have died painful deaths. The people—and, indeed, Parliament—deserve much better.

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) 12:48, 4 February 1998

The debate gives me two opportunities. First, it gives me the opportunity to record our appreciation of the work of service personnel—many doing their national service—who took part in our nuclear testing programme in Australia and the south Pacific. The atmospheric tests carried out in the 1950s were a major contribution to British development of our independent nuclear deterrent—not, as my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Smith) unfortunately claimed, for the sake of Ministers' egos, but as part of our national security effort.

Secondly, the debate gives me an opportunity to make clear to the House, and to those who will read the record, the facts of the matter with regard to the nuclear tests. I hope to answer most of my hon. Friend's questions in the time left to me, but I shall write to him about those that I cannot answer now.

Between 1952 and 1958, the United Kingdom conducted 21 nuclear tests in Australia and the Pacific. Those tests, which all took place in the atmosphere, ranged in yield from 1 kilotonne to 3 megatonnes. The purpose of the tests was to develop the United Kingdom's independent nuclear deterrent—an aim which was achieved with distinction by the personnel who were involved.

In 1962, the United States conducted nuclear tests off Christmas Island, at which some United Kingdom service personnel were also present. It would be quite wrong to assert, as some have asserted, that the health of service men and other personnel who were attending the atmospheric tests was not an absolute priority. Formal and well documented procedures were in place to ensure the safety of personnel in Australia and at Christmas Island. A standard safety drill at all UK atmospheric tests was for personnel to be mustered at a safe distance and to be ordered to face away from the blast while covering their eyes with their hands. Those measures eliminated the risk of being blinded by the flash, and minimised the risk of injury from flying debris.

The vast majority of personnel who were present during tests were mustered in areas that were known to be safe from the effects of blast, heat and any prompt or residual radiation. At Christmas Island, for example, the muster points were in the areas of the main camp and the port, each of which was some 25 miles from the detonations.

The mass of evidence shows that the health and safety of the trial participants were regarded very seriously, and that a great deal of trouble was taken over radiological protection. In nuclear tests, the distance from the explosions was a major safety feature. The Monte Bello islands, Maralinga, and Christmas Island were all chosen as test sites because there was a great deal of space. I was slightly surprised by my hon. Friend's comments about choosing those locations. Because of that space, it was not necessary to provide universal personal monitoring for all participants. These safety judgments were borne out by real-time environmental monitoring.

While the vast majority of personnel were mustered well outside the range of the radiation effects, a small number of specialist staff who were required to be closer to monitor the test, could have been at risk. Those people, most of whom were technical staff from the Atomic Weapons Establishment, and who were very much closer to the detonations, were sheltered. Any exposure was monitored, and, if necessary, decontamination took place. The same monitoring and decontamination regime applied to some aircrew who were involved in the tests.

Measures were taken in two ways to protect the civil population in Australia and Christmas Island from radiation hazards. First, they were kept out of the danger areas and, secondly, it was ensured that fall-out did not harm them outside those areas. Residual radiation at Maralinga in Australia, where certain trials took place until 1963, has been dealt with by a programme of site rehabilitation. As my hon. Friend rightly said, there was an agreement between the United Kingdom and Australia to deal with that. The agreement on personnel was a typical one between two countries, and most of the money was for cleaning up the site.

Separate and independent studies by Washington university in 1975 and by the New Zealand Department of Health in 1981 confirmed the findings of a 1964 atomic weapons research establishment study that, radiologically, the tests at Christmas Island had no impact on the islanders' environment, and had not contributed to any current or past health problems among the local population. I am slightly surprised that my hon. Friend was unconvinced by the evidence on that, and especially by the evidence from the New Zealand Government.

Photo of Mr Llew Smith Mr Llew Smith Labour, Blaenau Gwent

My comments about Australia were not intended as a criticism of the payment of compensation. They were about the failure to recognise that the compensation should be applicable not only to Australians who were affected but to British service personnel and medical auxiliaries.

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence)

As I have said, most of the money was to be used to clean up the site. Inevitably, the Australian Government rightly asked us for indemnity to cover them for any compensation claims against them, because they are responsible for aborigines who might have been in the territory and for Australian personnel. We were responsible for British personnel. That is the standard procedure, and any proven connections between presence at the tests and the induction of radiologically determined cancers would bring people within the scope of the United Kingdom's war pensions scheme. We are working on facts rather than on assertions. I shall shortly deal with that.

The subsequent position of the nuclear test veterans, which was outlined by my hon. Friend, has been the subject of detailed studies by the National Radiological Protection Board, which produced its initial report in 1988 and a follow-up one in 1993. The studies involved the medical records of no fewer than 21,000 veterans—some 85 per cent. of the total. The health of those veterans was compared with that of a similar control group of 22,000 personnel.

The 1993 NRPB report clearly concluded: participation in the test programme has not had a detectable effect on the participants' expectation of life, nor on their risk of developing cancer or other fatal diseases". Not only is the NRPB an independent advisory body to the Government, but the nuclear test veterans study group included representatives of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, an independent charity of unimpeachable credentials.

It is significant that the NRPB report was peer reviewed prior to publication in the British Medical Journal. Those conducting the studies included Professor Sir Richard Doll, a most eminent and respected epidemiologist, who is a world authority in his field and who was responsible for the pioneering work that established the clear connection between cigarette smoking and lung cancer.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent stressed the report by Sue Rabbit-Roff. There have been other studies, some of them of questionable statistical or scientific significance. My hon. Friend has tabled parliamentary questions about the Rabbit-Roff report. We think that it is unsatisfactory in a number of respects. As he said, it involves only a small proportion of veterans, about 2,000, who are members of the veterans association and are, by definition, a self-selected sample.

As far as I am aware, the work of Dr. Rabbit-Roff has not been peer reviewed or published in a reputable scientific journal. I urged that to be done when the report was published, and I still urge it. The statistical significance of Dr. Rabbit-Roff's work when compared with the vastly more comprehensive NRPB studies must be seriously questioned.

Photo of Mr Llew Smith Mr Llew Smith Labour, Blaenau Gwent

The Minister said that the sample of about 2,000 people was small and self-selected. I do not think that it was self-selected. Those people are members of the veterans association, and many of them have since died. If the Minister views that as a small sample, surely the Department should fund research on a bigger sample. If the Government were willing to do that, I am sure that medical researchers would take part. That issue was raised in one of my questions.

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence)

I fail to understand my hon. Friend's point. There have been two full studies of the full sample of test veterans by the National Radiological Protection Board. Both studies have been peer-reviewed and published, and have not been scientifically invalidated. My hon. Friend should bear that in mind.

I shall now turn to the two nuclear test veteran cases that were heard by the European Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg. One case concerned two former service men—Mr. McGinley and Mr. Egan, who were present at the atmospheric test. The other case concerned the daughter of a test veteran, who was diagnosed as suffering from leukaemia when she was four years old. The cases were referred to the court by the European Commission of Human Rights, which had concluded, as my hon. Friend rightly said, that there had been a violation of articles 6.1 and 8 in the McGinley and Egan case.

The finding of a violation of both articles related to the same issue. It was a narrow, technical point about access to records, which, it was claimed, were needed for the veterans to get a fair hearing in an appeal for war pensions. The commission inferred from the evidence that was placed before it by the applicants' representative that there were yield and radiation level records from the atmospheric tests that had not been released publicly. It considered those records to be relevant to the veterans' case, because, without them, they could not usefully challenge the NRPB report on the veterans' health or an Atomic Weapons Establishment report on radiation levels.

From that, the commission concluded that there had been a violation of article 6.1 because the lack of those records placed a disproportionate limitation on their right of access to the Pensions Appeal Tribunal. Therefore, let us be clear: the issue before the court relates to process, not to the substance of the claim that the veterans' experience at the tests led to cancer.

The Department's position is clear. We have consistently advised veterans of their individual radiation doses, based on the yields of the test devices and the distance of the individual from the device at the time of detonation. I will have to write to my hon. Friend on some of his detailed points, particularly as I took interventions during the debate.

New Ministers came to the Ministry of Defence determined to resolve matters on the basis of fact, not prejudgment. Whether dealing with industrial relations in the civil service, equipment purchases or the welfare of our troops, our guiding principles have been to be open to argument and to seek the truth and the facts. That is why the Minister for the Armed Forces has instigated a full investigation into Gulf war syndrome, and why I have taken measures with regard to those military personnel civilians who were—