Nuclear Test Veterans

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:48 pm on 4 February 1998.

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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.