Inter Law – Servicemen affected by radiation to seek compensation claims

Cold war veterans who were witness to nuclear tests in the South Pacific during the 1950’s have joined one of the largest compensation claims against the Ministry of Defence for alleged exposure to radiation.

Seven hundreds servicemen from Great Britain and New Zealand have been affected by serious illnesses including cancer since the tests, and they cite being in contact with radioactive emissions for this.

Testimonies from the 700 ex-naval officers disclose new details of the experiences and involvement they were subject too. Rosenblatt Solicitors, the legal firm representing the claimants reveal that British Royal Navy warship, HMS Diana, was directed to sail through an area that had just been exposed to the fallout of two atomic explosions. This was partly to examine the effects radiation would have on the ship and its equipment.

However, crew members on board were left suffering the signs of exposure to the harmful nuclear discharge. Bob Malcolmson, a radio operator on board HMS Diana during the 1950’s and 18 years old at the time, recalls the experience. He said, “The explosion was tremendous. They actually heard it in Australia 200 miles away from the islands. We turned our backs and covered our eyes with our hands. I had my eyes open and I could see the bones in my hands, even with my back to things.”

The two explosions during the trials were measured at 98 kilotons; six times the size of the infamous Hiroshima atomic bomb.

“Several chaps lost teeth and others lost their hair. So a lot of wives and sweethearts waited in Devonport to welcome back bald fiancés and bald boyfriends with a few teeth missing”, said Malcolmson who was diagnosed with polycythemia in 1974, some twenty years following the nuclear tests. Polycythemia is a rare form of blood cancer and has been linked to radiation exposure. 

The testimony from Captain John Gower, who is recently deceased, revealed that large areas of the deck had become radioactive and therefore had to be roped off. Many of those on board that day, including Captain Gower, believe that the British Government had used the exercise to purposely test the effects the contact with the fallout would have on the crew as well as the ship.

A document addressed to the Chiefs of Staff Committee in 1953 and released by Rosenblatt Solicitors, under the 50 year Official Secrets Act, reads, “The Army must discover the detailed effects of various types of explosion on equipment, stores and men, with and without various types of protection.”

This, Rosenblatt Solicitors claim is the evidence they need to win their clients compensation claims.

However, official historian of the British Nuclear tests, Lorna Arnold claims the document refers to the trials being carried out on models, which were placed in various positions at the test site. These models were fitted with instruments to measure the amount of radiation they were exposed too.

Rosenblatt Solicitors insist though, that whether or not the servicemen were meant to be used as human guinea pigs, the Ministry of Defence should still be held liable due to the large numbers and specific illnesses experienced by the crew members.

The Ministry of Defence refute the allegations however saying in a statement, “When compensation claims are received they are considered on the basis of whether or not the Ministry of Defence has a legal liability to pay compensation. Where there is a proven legal liability compensation is paid.”

There is a chance that none of the arguments will reach court proceedings as the Ministry of Defence has indicated it will use a defence of limitation, where compensation must be brought within three years of the injury.

With many of those affected already deceased with some of the remaining veterans with just a few months or years to live, a decision by British courts in 2009 to decide whether a case can be brought against the Ministry of Defence may be too late for some.

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