Commonwealth servicemen who participated in the UK nuclear testing program in the Pacific are calling for recognition and compensation, as leaders gather in London for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM).
This month is the 60th anniversary of Grapple Y, the test of a multi-megaton thermonuclear weapon by the United Kingdom in the central Pacific. The atmospheric nuclear test was held at Christmas (Kiritimati) Island on 28 April 1958, during Operation Grapple - the program to develop the British hydrogen bomb.
Sixty years on, sailors and soldiers from New Zealand and Fiji who participated in Operation Grapple have issued an open letter to the Commonwealth Heads of Government, calling for justice for the survivors of the UK nuclear tests.
In the open letter (attached), they call on British Prime Minister Theresa May to fulfil promises made 60 years ago, to address the health and environmental consequences of the UK nuclear weapons program.
Nine UK hydrogen bomb tests were held between May 1957 and September 1958 at Malden Island and Christmas (Kiritimati) Island in the British Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony - today part of the Pacific nation of Kiribati. Nearly 14,000 British troops travelled to the central Pacific for the H-bomb testing program, but other Commonwealth countries were also involved.
New Zealand sent aircraft and two naval frigates with 551 New Zealand sailors to support the tests. The British colony of Fiji supplied 276 Fijian participants from the Royal Fiji Military Force and the Fiji Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. Dozens of Gilbertese islanders worked as labourers to support the military operation. Australia provided uranium for the UK nuclear weapons program, and atomic triggers used for the UK hydrogen bomb were tested in the South Australian desert at Maralinga. Canadian airbases were used to transport the nuclear weapons to the Pacific. Commonwealth countries like Samoa, Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati and Australia hosted radiation monitoring stations.
As a member of the Fiji Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, Paul Ah Poy helped survey the test site, and witnessed seven nuclear tests during Operation Grapple.
“As British colonial subjects in the 1950s, Fijians loyally served the UK military. But as survivors of the nuclear tests, we have lost friends and colleagues to cancer, leukaemia and other illnesses that can be caused by radiation.” said Ah Poy. “Today, we ask the British government to provide compensation, medical support and environmental rehabilitation to all people affected by Operation Grapple, including New Zealand and Fijian military personnel and i-Kiribati living on Christmas (Kiritimati) Island.”
Children of Gilbertese plantation workers on the island suffered eye damage and other health effects from the nuclear detonations. Survivors on Christmas (Kiritimati) Island have formed the ‘Association of Cancer Patients Affected by the British and American Bomb Tests.’
Independent medical studies, such as research conducted by Professor Al Rowland at Massey University in New Zealand, have documented significant chromosomal translocations amongst the New Zealand sailors who joined the naval task force for Operation Grapple.
Roy Sefton, chair of the New Zealand Nuclear Test Veterans Association, was awarded the Queen’s Service Medal for his work with NZ nuclear veterans. As a participant during five nuclear tests, he says that Commonwealth veterans should receive the same support as British troops.
“The British government should provide funds for an independent medical study to investigate potential intergenerational health effects for the children and grandchildren of Operation Grapple participants from New Zealand, Kiribati and Fiji - as it has done for UK veterans”, said Sefton.