Nuclear Test Veterans

– in the Scottish Parliament on 7th November 2019.

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Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

The next item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-18772, in the name of George Adam, on recognition for nuclear test veterans. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament recognises the veterans who served in the Ministry of Defence atmospheric nuclear test programme in the 1950s and 1960s; understands that 22,000 veterans took part in the programme, of which, around 1,500 survive today, including Ken McGinley, a prolific campaigner for veterans, from Renfrewshire; acknowledges that a 1999 health study of these veterans found that 39% of veteran's children were born with serious medical conditions, that partners of veterans were three times more likely to suffer miscarriage, and children were 10 times more likely to have a birth defect; understands that the UK is the only nuclear power to deny special recognition and compensation to its test veterans, and notes calls for compensation and an investigation into how future generations of these veterans may be affected.

Photo of George Adam George Adam Scottish National Party

I have brought this debate to the chamber on the back of knowing and being friends with Ken McGinley, who is a nuclear test veteran. He is not from Paisley—he is from greater Paisley, as he is from Johnstone. When I first met him as a teenager, he was a Labour councillor—I see that there are no Labour members in the chamber—in Renfrew District Council. I knew him from then. The years went on, and he is now a member of the Scottish National Party. I see him regularly in my constituency office. He comes and tells me stories about what he went through and the difficulties that he, other campaigners and other families have had to deal with after the tests on Christmas Island.

The irony is not lost on me that we are debating the subject in the week before remembrance Sunday. I never set out to have the debate this week; it is funny how fate makes up for justice in many ways, and balances it. This week, we are remembering people who defended our nation in various conflicts and gave their lives. However, British nuclear test veterans have been completely forgotten. They have been forgotten by the nation and the United Kingdom Government, which carried out tests on them. It is entirely for others to decide whether that was an intentional policy on behalf of the British state. However, many of those veterans are now very elderly and many of them might be dead before they see justice. For me, that is the most important issue. Those people and their families might not see justice while they are alive.

We are talking about a state that took young men in national service from one side of the world to the other and dropped a nuclear bomb on them to see how that worked out, how it affected them and how they could function on a nuclear battlefield, of all things. That is how simple the matter is. That seems to be complete madness to us. It feels barbaric in the 21st century, and it seems almost unbalanced for a state to do that. Who in the 1950s honestly thought that it was a good idea to drop a bomb on people? It is not as if the horrors of Hiroshima had not been seen or what could happen was not known. However, those young servicemen were used as guinea pigs by an uncaring and distant Government.

Since then, many of those veterans have gone on to have medical conditions that are connected with their time on

Christmas Island, and their families have had to live through that. It was not a case of an officer saying, “Today, gentlemen, we go into battle. Some of you might not come back. You might be killed by the enemy.” In many cases, people did not know what was going on. A nuclear bomb was dropped on top of them, and they have had to live with that for the rest of their lives.

Photo of Kevin Stewart Kevin Stewart Scottish National Party

I thank Mr Adam for bringing this debate—

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I am sorry, but I forgot to call you. I nearly called you “minister”, but I do not know whether I am calling you that in this debate. I will call you Minister Kevin Stewart and hedge my bets.

Photo of Kevin Stewart Kevin Stewart Scottish National Party

I thank Mr Adam for bringing the debate to the chamber, because, like him, I have constituents who are survivors of the nuclear tests.

I have seen the radiation burns of one of my constituents. They are quite horrific and he has had to go through a lot in his life. He said to me that other countries have compensated their nuclear test victims, but the UK has not, which he feels is unjust. Does Mr Adam agree with my constituent? Should those nuclear test victims be compensated now for what was done to them in the 1950s and 60s?

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I was generous with that intervention, knowing the protocol when ministers speak in debates. Your time will be made up, Mr Adam.

Photo of George Adam George Adam Scottish National Party

For personal reasons, I agree with everything that Mr Stewart said—I know Ken McGinley, so I know what he has gone through. He has explained to me what many of his colleagues and comrades, as well as their families, have gone through, too.

This happened to Ken McGinley on Christmas Island in 1958, which is not ancient history. To my daughter, that might seem like 100 years ago, but it happened within living memory for many people. Let us look at the context: on 6 February 1958, there was the Munich plane crash disaster, which happened after Manchester United were at a European cup tie in Belgrade; on 25 February, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was launched while the nuclear tests were going on; on 1 August, the first “Carry On” film, “Carry On Sergeant”, which was about army life, was released; and Cliff Richard’s first record reached number 2 in the UK charts—it was the first American-type rock ‘n’ roll record to be released by a British artist.

Nineteen-year-old Ken was more interested in all those things than in what was going on with the nuclear tests. He has said to me on numerous occasions that he was aware of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but he had no real knowledge of nuclear bombs. For Ken and his comrades as they went to the other side of the world, it was like a Boy’s Own adventure. The big thing for Ken was stopping off at Hawaii on the way over, because that was like a different planet for a young man from Johnstone. For the rock ‘n’ roll generation, national service was a cool thing to do, because their king—the king of rock ‘n’ roll himself—was conscripted to the US army in 1958. They were living the same life as Elvis Presley, so, for them, it was a completely different reality to the one that we now know it was.

On 28 April 1958 at 10:05 local time, a Valiant aircraft piloted by Squadron Leader Bob Bates dropped a bomb off the coast of Christmas Island. It was the largest British nuclear weapon ever tested—a 3 megatonne monster.

Ken McGinley was a young sapper in the Royal Engineers. He was posted in January 1958 and spent three months building barracks and facilities for the thousands of servicemen who were engaged in the thermonuclear test programme. When the 3 megatonne monster was released, young Ken was 25 miles away on the beach. He was provided with white overalls, which, as we all know, help a lot in a nuclear blast. He was told to turn away and cover his eyes with clenched fists. He told me that when he clenched his fists over his eyes and the bomb went off, all he could see was his skeleton.

I have a quote from Ken about what happened that day. He said:

“I think the bomb exploded at a lower level than anticipated because there was an awful lot of dirt flying about. After the explosion, we were instructed to turn and watch the mushroom cloud rise. We were then told to take off our overalls and place them in a pile.

It began to rain. The rain was discoloured and fell in large, heavy drops. Men, who I believe were scientists, wearing white suits and distinctive hoods and large black goggles began shouting for us to take cover in the tents.

It was at this time that I got my first taste of black rum. It was a tradition in the Navy to serve black rum after rainfall. I did not like it at all.

Before we went off duty, we were ordered to kill the birds which had been injured by the explosion. Some were still flying around but they were blind as their eyes had been burnt out. We used pickaxe handles to kill the birds. I did not like doing this but we had no choice because of the terrible condition they were in.”

That happened when Ken was a 19-year-old boy. The trauma of having to deal with that alone would be enough to affect anybody.

However, as I said at the very beginning, we must remember our national servicepeople who have suffered because of this. We talk at this time of year of individuals who stormed the beaches at Normandy and of individuals who had to suffer in the trenches in the first world war. I feel that these people, who were used as guinea pigs, have been forgotten by the British state. The UK still does not acknowledge or recognise their plight, even though other nations have already done so. That is not only wrong; it is a national embarrassment for us here in this country. It is time for us to listen to, respect and acknowledge men such as Ken McGinley. We need to do that soon before it is too late and they are no longer with us.

Photo of Kenneth Gibson Kenneth Gibson Scottish National Party

I congratulate my colleague George Adam on securing debating time for this important subject. Back in 2011, I tried to lodge a motion on this issue, but there was a case in the High Court at the time, so it was deemed unacceptable under sub judice rules. However, I wrote to the Secretary of State for Defence, Liam Fox, and the Minister for Defence Veterans, Reserves and Personnel, Andrew Robathan, without success. I then contributed to Christina McKelvie’s debate on the issue later that year.

The very notion of nuclear testing is beyond the imagination of most of us. Indeed, it is hard to fully comprehend that such apocalyptic weapons were deployed while thousands of service personnel were instructed to watch without wearing protective clothing.

UK cabinet papers that were released in 1985 under the 30-year rule revealed that in 1955, the then Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, contemplated evacuating Scotland north of the Black Isle in order to test a nuclear device near Wick. Opposition from the Norwegian Government, which was concerned about prevailing wind conditions, meant that that mad suggestion was thankfully never taken forward.

However, between 1955 and 1963, the British Government conducted secret nuclear tests at Maralinga in South Australia and on Christmas Island. Perhaps the most notorious of these tests was operation grapple Y in 1958, which tested weapons over 100 times more powerful than the bombs that levelled Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In 2001, Dr Sue Rabbitt Roff of the University of Dundee uncovered evidence suggesting that troops had been instructed to walk across the sites within hours of detonation, exposing themselves to radioactive materials. That was later confirmed by the UK Government, despite previous contradictory statements that no humans had been used in experiments related to nuclear weapons testing. Understandably, many surviving nuclear test veterans and their families believe that they have a compensation claim against the UK Government.

Tragically, the experience of UK test veterans is not unique and during the cold war, forces personnel from the United States, Canada, France, Russia and China took part in similar trials. However, service personnel from those nations were afforded decent compensation settlements by their Governments.

The UK is the only nuclear power to deny special recognition and compensation to its test veterans, which is shameful. The Ministry of Defence maintains that service personnel suffered no ill effects as a result of the tests, but the evidence that is presented by veterans and their families to the contrary is compelling.

Two thirds of British Nuclear Test Veterans Association members died before the age of 60 and ionising radiation, a known mutagen, impacted on veterans’ children and grandchildren in the form of physical deformities. Dr Roff completed a study in 1999 that found that of 2,261 children born to veterans, 39 per cent were born with serious medical conditions—14 times the national figure of 2.5 per cent.

Depleted uranium weapons were tested in Scotland despite warnings from MOD scientists that the contamination could never be cleaned up. Secret Government records give a fascinating insight into the political manipulation and manoeuvring that went on behind the scenes in the 1970s to ensure that Scotland did not thwart MOD plans to test-fire depleted uranium munitions at the Dundrennan military range near Kirkcudbright.

An internal MOD memo from 1973 warned that test firing would leave parts of the range contaminated by “very persistent dust”, adding:

“It will probably be impossible to remove this completely and initial consideration of this fact is essential.”

Nevertheless, the MOD pursued its plans, opting instead to hide them. In 1979, one senior official wrote:

“My inclination would be not to mention Kirkcudbright at all at this stage, but to wait until we can point to accident-free experience in English ranges before tackling the Scots”.

Labour’s Secretary of State for Scotland at the time, Bruce Millan MP, protested to the then Prime Minister, Jim Callaghan, that DU testing would compound the problems that he was having with nationalists and environmentalists who were opposing Scotland becoming a “nuclear dustbin”.

With regard to Scotland’s nuclear veterans, we owe a sincere debt to those who were forced to take part in the tests, and their unique service must never be forgotten. I am glad that our Parliament continues to recognise that. The victims’ suffering has been ignored by previous Westminster Governments and the MOD for too long. It is time for UK ministers to accept responsibility for the effects of past policies and to do the right thing for our nuclear veterans and their families.

Photo of Maurice Corry Maurice Corry Conservative

I, too, thank my colleague George Adam for bringing to the chamber for debate his important motion, which describes in graphic detail the issue that we are discussing and the seriousness of it. I also pay tribute to Ken McGinley, given his experience of what was an appalling situation. I served in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders with a colleague whose father was in the Royal Air Force and was on the Valiant that Mr Adam mentioned. I know about the problems that he suffered, which we looked into, and that is going back 20 or 30 years.

The people in the armed forces are some of the bravest men and women our nation has to offer. They are called upon to make numerous personal sacrifices—in some cases, the ultimate sacrifice—on behalf of our nation. The gravity of those sacrifices varies, but that does not lessen their significance or veterans’ right to recognition and respect for their service.

With the discovery of nuclear fission in the 1930s and the resulting events at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, the landscape of military weapon development was drastically changed, and the UK began to research and develop nuclear warheads in order to stay at the forefront of that emerging powerful technology. Enormous resources were allocated to the operation to ensure that it was successful. As has been mentioned, that included manpower of approximately 22,000 servicemen, who fulfilled tasks ranging from construction of runways and camps to gathering radiation samples from mushroom clouds. It is easy to forget about their service, because no combative battles were fought and no soldiers were killed by enemy fire—but that is an unacceptable justification on our part for what happened on Christmas Island all those years ago.

The individuals in question not only ensured the security of the nation during a particularly volatile and uncertain time, but did so at great personal risk. Although the possible dangers of radiation were acknowledged at the time, the full impact of ionising radiation was not well understood. As we have progressed further into the nuclear age, more resources have been put into research on that and deeper understanding has developed.

Unfortunately, our vision in hindsight is 20/20. We cannot go back in time to provide our nuclear veterans with the protection that they needed at the time but, moving forward, there is much that can be done to support them.

As I have said, there should be no question about recognition of those veterans for the valiant work that they did. They deserve it. They have done much on behalf of our nation, and I thank them deeply for it.

However, we should not stop at recognition alone—action must be taken. In 2011, the armed forces covenant created the understanding that, in return for the services and personal sacrifices of soldiers, sailors and airmen, we would, as a nation, ensure that they would be sustained and rewarded in commensurate terms.

That agreement to support veterans also includes a commitment to support their families and, in this case—on account of the nature of radiation—their descendants, as George Adam’s motion highlights. That can be done by providing the families with access to accurate information and specific guidance concerning current and future health risks; by helping the families to understand the further impact of their husbands’ and fathers’ participation in nuclear tests; by providing relatives with the necessary support as technology advances and knowledge is gained; and by ensuring that requests for compensation both past and present are fully investigated and given the consideration that they deserve.

It is important to note that those suggestions only scratch the surface of what can be done for the men in question and their families. As convener of the cross-party group on the armed forces and veterans community, I undertake to look into the matter and to write again to the Secretary of State for Defence on behalf of the group as it becomes stronger and gains a greater presence in the Parliament.

We must not forget the important sacrifices that our servicemen and servicewomen make on behalf of our nation, or our duty to them in return. Let us not forget that our nuclear test veterans fulfilled their role more than 50 years ago. It is now our turn to step up to the plate and offer support wherever we can.

Photo of Mr Mark Ruskell Mr Mark Ruskell Green

I thank George Adam for introducing the debate and for bringing into the chamber the personal testimony of Ken McGinley, which I found incredibly moving. It was one of the most moving testimonies that I have ever heard: the words will stay with me for a very long time.

As George Adam pointed out, this is the time of year when we always turn our thoughts to those in the services who have made huge sacrifices. Although it is always heartening to see charitable fundraising to support our veterans, I am always left with a sense of shame that our Ministry of Defence has done so little to support those who have given so much. From nuclear test veterans to the Gurkha soldiers, people have suffered injustices and need our support. As a country, we have a responsibility to provide support and treatment for their injuries, illnesses and ill-health.

The British Nuclear Test Veterans Association estimates that about 22,000 British servicemen—military and merchant navy—were present for the various tests in operation grapple and in the American military’s operation Dominic. As we have heard, those men—some of whom were as young as 17 years old—were stationed as close as just 23 miles from the detonations and ordered to watch as the mushroom clouds rose and dispersed across Christmas Island and Malden Island.

One veteran described being able to see his bones through his skin. Another claimed that the flash was so bright that it was like seeing a second sun. Those young men had no idea of the damage that nuclear weapons of that kind would do to them. Of the estimated 22,000, around 1,500 are still alive today and are able to provide such testimony. They have suffered from long-lasting health issues, having been affected by cancers, weak bones and countless other illnesses.

Unfortunately, for many of those men, the injustices of the tests have been inherited by their children and grandchildren. We have heard that 39 per cent of nuclear test veterans’ children were born with serious medical conditions, that the partners of test veterans have been three times more likely to suffer miscarriages, and that the children of test veterans have been 10 times more likely to have a birth defect. The ill-health has even gone on to affect grandchildren.

As the motion mentions, to date

“the UK is the only nuclear power to deny special recognition and compensation to its test veterans”.

Ken McGinley and Edward Egan sued the Ministry of Defence for damages, but were rejected. In 2012, more than 1,000 test veterans were denied permission to sue the MOD by the UK Supreme Court on the ground that too much time had elapsed since they became aware of their medical conditions. The Ministry of Defence insists that the ill-health of the veterans is unrelated to nuclear tests, but the Governments of France, Australia, the US and Fiji are among those that offer formal recognition and varying levels of compensation to their atomic veterans.

The UK has shamefully failed to provide its veterans with appropriate recognition or compensation, and is thereby failing in its most basic duty of care. The British Nuclear Test Veterans Association has campaigned since 1984 for recognition and compensation for those who participated in the tests, and does vital work in offering support and aid to the veterans and their families. Its campaign requesting that the MOD issue a medal for test veterans is expected to be ruled on later this month. I urge the MOD to do everything that it can to recognise both their service and on-going struggle for justice.

Nuclear bombs are devastating, indiscriminate and inhumane weapons that have no place in our society. Scotland’s opposition to the Trident nuclear weapons system is well established. We can, and should, lead the charge in creating a nuclear-free world. I hope that the MOD does the right thing and delivers justice for those servicemen.

Photo of Tom Arthur Tom Arthur Scottish National Party

I thank my friend and colleague, George Adam, for bringing the debate to the chamber. I also pay tribute and express my gratitude to veterans and serving personnel in Renfrewshire South, across Scotland and beyond for their dedication and tireless work to keep us safe. I also thank George Adam for his recognition of my constituent and friend, Ken McGinley. Although there is not much that I can add to what George so eloquently said, Ken has led a remarkable life, and I have the greatest respect for his commitment and dedication to the cause of nuclear test veterans.

I am glad that his work has been recognised this afternoon.

George Adam’s speech contextualised effectively the events of 1958, which reminded us that we are talking not about far-distant history that is remote from our lives, but about something very relevant that happened in, if not our lifetimes, the lifetimes of our parents and grandparents. It lives with us to this day, given the ever-continuing menace of nuclear weapons.

The debate regarding compensation for nuclear test veterans has often focused on the impact and effects of exposure to radiation. I am not a clinician or an expert who can offer comment on that. I appreciate that test veterans organisations and the UK Government have different points of view. However, that argument rather misses the point, because nuclear test veterans were subject to an exceptional set of circumstances.

Members have shared nuclear test veterans’ accounts of the experience of witnessing a nuclear detonation: having one’s back to the explosion, with fists clenched, and, due to the intensity of the flash, being able to see the skeletal structure and outline of blood vessels in one’s hand. Ken McGinley described the experience to me as like having a three-bar fire passed across his neck.

Perhaps the most elegant, poetic and chilling account of a nuclear detonation was that given in 1945 by the father of the atomic bomb, Robert Oppenheimer, who, on witnessing the detonation of Trinity, the first nuclear device, quoted from the Bhagavad Gita:

“Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”.

No one who has witnessed a nuclear test and its devastating impact, or “chilling beauty” as some veterans have described it, could not be profoundly impacted for the remainder of their life. No one could be subjected to that experience and not have an increased risk of post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health conditions. No one could be subjected to that and, regardless of the reassurances that they have been given, not have deep concerns about the impact that the exposure to such an event could have on their health. That alone should be grounds for compensation.

In 2000, the UK Government recognised the exceptional circumstances of prisoners of war in Japan during the second world war. An ex gratia sum of £10,000 was awarded to those survivors or their widows. That was the correct decision and recognised an exceptional set of circumstances. Nuclear test veterans are an exceptional set of veterans. They should be recognised and they should receive compensation.

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

As ever, I am grateful to George Adam for bringing the debate to the Parliament. I thank members for their speeches. I also welcome the accidental timing of the debate, which is timely given that this weekend is remembrance Sunday, when we reflect on the service and sacrifice of many generations.

As part of that reflection, there must be recognition of that awful decision all those years ago to place British service personnel in harm’s way as nuclear devices were tested—to treat them, as George Adam said, as guinea pigs—and of the hard work of groups representing and supporting nuclear test veterans across the decades.

George Adam and Tom Arthur talked about one individual: Ken McGinley. As we have heard, my ministerial colleague, Kevin Stewart, has been championing the cause of one of his constituents from Aberdeen. I also know that Christina McKelvie—who was with us earlier—did similar work on behalf of a constituent who, sadly, is no longer with us. Despite the passage of time, there will be nuclear test veterans living in most, if not all, of our constituencies.

In preparing for the debate, I was struck by the fact that my dad did his national service in the 1950s. Had circumstances been different, he could have been among the 20,000-plus personnel who were made to be present at the tests. I suspect that colleagues might have family members who could have been similarly caught up in them. Once again, therefore, I thank George Adam for bringing the debate to the chamber, as the timing is impeccable and the significance indisputable. I also thank him for his moving speech.

The Scottish Government is clear that where ill-health is proven to be a result of service in the armed forces, it is right that the UK Government provides adequate and appropriate compensation. I am aware that it is the right of any veteran who believes that they have suffered ill-health as a result of service to apply for no-fault compensation under the war pensions scheme, and I encourage them to do so. However, I recognise that for this particular cohort, the issue is about more than compensation. It is also about getting an acknowledgement that there were serious detrimental consequences for some of them as a result of what they were exposed to, and it is about justice.

As we heard, more than 20,000 UK and Commonwealth personnel were involved in the UK’s atmospheric nuclear weapons test programme in Australia and the south Pacific in the 1950s and 1960s. Although that was a long time ago, the responsibility for proven detrimental consequences of involvement in that programme cannot and should not be ducked. To that end, the amassing of a robust, objective and undisputed evidence base—challenging as it might be to achieve that all these years on—is essential, because the two perspectives on the matter are so far apart. Doubt is cast by one side on the veracity and reliability of the 1999 health study to which George Adam’s motion refers. Although there are other accepted international studies to which Governments have responded appropriately, the veterans have been left deeply disappointed and doubting the findings of more recent, domestic pieces of work.

In the 1980s, scientists from the National Radiological Protection Board, which became part of the Health Protection Agency in 2005, established a study to investigate whether the radiation to which UK personnel were exposed during those tests had detrimentally affected their health. Those studies have continued to date without settling the issue, certainly from the perspective of the veterans and those who support them. I therefore welcome the fact that, in July 2018, the MOD commissioned a fourth study in order to bring the evidence completely up to date. That study is still under way, and I believe that it is planned that the results will be published sometime in the early or middle part of next year. That work will add a current perspective to the studies involving research into the comparison of incidences of certain types of cancer among the veterans with a control group of the general population, and I look forward to learning the results in due course.

I understand entirely if the veterans concerned and their families feel that they have had enough of studies, and that the undertaking of such is a delaying tactic. Nonetheless, in a few months’ time, we should have a clearer picture, and we will, it is hoped, be embarking on a process that will offer those veterans some long-overdue degree of closure.

That said, back in April, I wrote to Tobias Ellwood, the then Parliamentary Under Secretary of State and Minister for Defence People and Veterans, asking both that the Scottish Government be kept up-to-date on the progress of the study and that the possibility of expanding it to include the wellbeing of children be considered. I still await a reply from the UK Government, although ministerial reshuffles and the fact that we now have a Westminster election coming up may have contributed to the lack of a response. I certainly hope that that is the reason.

I will not be alone in being thankful that atmospheric nuclear testing is now a thing of the past for the vast majority of nations. However, the recent activity in North Korea serves as a reminder to us all that nuclear weapons remain an aspiration for many. What long-past and recent years have taught us is that the world remains a dangerous and volatile place, and that nuclear weapons have exacerbated the situation rather than improving it. The fact that many nations now possess the so-called nuclear deterrent has not discouraged the continued development of nuclear missile programmes by aspiring nuclear-weapons states. Lessons have still not been learned.

The Scottish Government—and, I am sure, the majority of members of the Scottish Parliament—remains of the belief that there is no place for these dreadful and indiscriminate weapons, and that they should be consigned to history, where they belong. It is clear from the contributions today, for which I commend members, that members of this Parliament understand entirely the concerns of nuclear test veterans and the inexplicable, unforgivable nature of what they were exposed to. I thank all members again for their contributions, and George Adam in particular for providing us with the opportunity to air this hugely important issue today.

13:19 Meeting suspended.

14:00 On resuming—