SNP MSP Tom Arthur has taken part in a Members’ Business Debate, led by Paisley’s MSP George Adam, remembering the veterans involved in the Ministry of Defence’s atmospheric nuclear test programme in the 1950s.
Between 1952 and 1958 the UK carried out 21 atmospheric nuclear tests – 12 in Australia, 9 at Christmas Island, now called Kiritimati – in the South Pacific.
As many as 22,000 witnessed the explosions in the South Pacific, of which, around 1,500 survive today. Many have been battling since 2004 for compensation in relation to the health problems caused by radiation exposure.
A health study in 1999 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.
Ken McGinley, 70, from Johnstone in Renfrewshire, is one of the 1,011 ex-servicemen attempting to sue the UK Government for cancers and chronic conditions they say were caused by participation in the programme.
The debate comes at a time when the country is preparing to honour the veterans of war, but the suffering of the nuclear test veterans remains largely un-noticed.
George Adam MSP commented:
“At a time of year when we honour those that have lost their lives in armed conflict, it’s important we remember the British Nuclear Test Veterans.
“Most of them were national servicemen believing they were living a boy’s own adventure. When they came home, many suffered illness related to their time on Christmas Island and the nuclear testing.
“It’s time for the UK Government to acknowledge the plight of these men before it is too late.”
Tom Arthur MSP added:
“I am very grateful to my colleague George Adam for bringing this important debate to the chamber today.
“I would also like to 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.
“The harrowing personal accounts from nuclear test veterans, including my constituent and friend Ken McGinley, deserve to be heard and recognised. No one could be subject to these experiences and not be profoundly impacted for the rest of their life – both mentally and physically.
“The UK is the only nuclear power to deny special recognition to its test veterans, and to continue doing so is shameful.”
Mr McGinley, describing his experiences, said:
“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.
“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.
“On Christmas Island I witnessed five bomb tests. Basically we had no protection.
“All we were told to do was to stand and look at the bomb [and] cover our eyes up in case we got blinded by the flash.”