Nuclear Test Veterans

Part of the debate – 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.