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British nuclear tests in the Pacific and Pacific Islanders: what were British officials thinking? Islands Business, August 2009.


British short-cuts and compromises in the safety zones



  During 1957 and 1958,Britain conducted nuclear tests in the Pacific- three atMaldenIsland, and six atChristmas Island.  Both these islands were part of the British colony then called Gilbert and Ellice Islands (now called Kiribati and Tuvalu respectively).

British, Australian,New Zealandand Fijian servicemen were exposed to risks of radiation.  So also possibly were indigenous Gilbertese (now referred to as I-Kiribati) in the test zones.

A book (Kirisimasi: Fijian Troops at Britain’s Christmas Island Nuclear Tests) launched some ten years ago by the Pacific Concerns Resource Centre, outlines the personal case histories of the many Fijians who suffered the ill-effects of radiation at the test sites, as well as the continuing effects on their children.  Included in the long list of names are the former President of Fiji, Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau, who died of leukemia and sepsis in 1993.

For decades, British, NZ, Australian and Fiji personnel exposed to the radiation have failed to obtain compensation from Britain’s Ministry of Defense, which denied any negligence in holding the tests, denied that the sicknesses in servicemen were caused by exposure to the radiation, and most recently even arguing that the case was launched “outside the legal time limit”.

But in a recent High Court judgment in London, military veterans from Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Britain have won clearance to sue Britain’s Ministry of Defense for illnesses associated with radiation exposure during the nuclear tests.

Is there also a case for any Gilbertese civilians who may also have been knowingly exposed by the British Government, to the risk of radiation?

A decade ago, while doing some research at the Public Records Office in KewGardens, London[1] on my own PhD area, I passed time reading some formerly “Top Secret” official British Government files on British nuclear testing in the Pacific.

These files of official internal British Government correspondence indicated that in a great hurry to get the tests done, the British Government made major compromises in safety standards both during and after testing: “Danger Zones” were designated arbitrarily possibly exposing native inhabitants to fall-out danger; there was evidence of hurried and risky changing of test site to save money and time for the British Government.

There was also a record of the British authorities promising pensions and compensation for injury to Fijian servicemen being sent to the nuclear testing sites.

How “Danger Areas” were defined

  On November 19, 1956, Air Vice-Marshall Oulton (Commander of Task Force Grapple) circulated a Top Secret paper on how the “Danger Area” for the nuclear testing was to be defined (Public Records Office file CO1036/280).

The paper stated that there was a level B of radio-activity at which “a small temporary but observable physiological effect would be produced in a small fraction (less than one per cent) of a population exposed to it”.   And the paper declared that for “primitive peoples”, who did not wear boots and clothing and did not wash, the danger level was somewhat lower- ie any fallout posed greater risks to the native Gilbertese.

The paper initially stated that “it is desirable that the declared Danger Area should at least enclose the whole region in which there is a possibility that level B may be produced”, as a result of accidental surface bursts at either Christmas Island or Malden Island.

These danger areas were given by circles of radius 400 nautical miles, centered on these two islands.  But these circles were given in reference to explosions equivalent to only 150 kilotonnes of TNT.   Most of the actual explosions were larger than this, and one was close to three million tonnes.  The Danger Areas for the latter should have significantly bigger.

But then, the authorities blandly claimed that “such an area is patently too large and has been reduced” according to some “basic principles”: populated islands (other than Christmas andMalden) must not be included; boundaries should be lines of latitude and longitude; and the total area should not greatly exceed that of the US Danger Area (in their tests atBikini).

These arbitrary and patently illogical “principles” meant that the Danger Area advised to the public was artificially drawn to excludePalmyra,Washington, Fanning andJarvisIslandfrom the circle aroundChristmas Island.  Also artificially excluded from the circle aroundMaldenIslandwere Penrhyn andJarvisIslands (see the Map).

A meeting was held on November 27, 1956 atSt Giles Court(recorded in file CO1036/280), on the Safety Precautions planned for Operation Grapple, and the paper on the declaration of the Danger Area.

The minutes recorded that the Minister of Supply should be informed that the “radiation levels recommended by the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) would be necessarily exceeded” but that “only very slight health hazard to people would arise and that only to primitive peoples”.

  Moreover, the Commander of the Grapple Task Force (Oulton) claimed that “all known craft in that part of the Pacific were powered and capable of 10 knots”.  In case of accident, craft “would have sufficient time to leave the danger area ahead of the advancing fallout if they act promptly on warning from the patrol aircraft as planned”.

The meeting agreed that in their submission to the ministers, “reference should be made to the degree of risk to members of the Task Force, and to its necessary acceptance if the Operation is to be mounted”.

What of dangers to the Gilbertese?

  There is no record in any of the files of any consideration being given to the native Gilbertese on their islands, or in their native craft, powered by paddles or sail.   How exactly were the Gilbertese on the ground or at sea, going to be warned by the patrol aircraft, to leave the danger area?  By loud speaker or pamphlets thrown from the air?  In what language?  For what destination would they be required to set sail?

A memorandum of November 5, 1958, from Captain J.G.T. Western to the Headquarters Task Force Grapple asked that the Gilbertese population atChristmas Islandshould be evacuated before the test on Christmas Island unless an absolute assurance could be given as to their safety from any ill-effects of the tests.  The authorities in London were not able to give any such assurance.

All the Gilbertese other than a “handful of Government employees” were evacuated to Canton Island andFanningIslandfor theMaldenIslandtests.

For the explosions offChristmas Island, “which was planned at very short notice, Colonial Office approval was given to an evacuation into a ship a few hours before a test”. But even this was stopped in general except for the high yield weapons. For the smaller two kiloton explosions, the Gilbertese “were marshaled ashore in a safe place”.

It was acknowledged that anyone who deliberately or accidentally observed the initial flash of the test was ‘likely to have their eyesight temporarily or permanently impaired”. But the memorandum claimed that adult Gilbertese were “capable of being taught the simple drill of facing away from the weapon and covering their eyes. Children and mothers with their babies can be mustered in buildings unsusceptible to blast and shielded from flash”.

But the Memorandum also admitted that the blasts from some of the larger weapons had “been sufficiently great to break windows and damage unvented structure”.


As to fallout, the Memorandum claimed that “provided the operation is executed according to plan there is no fallout,” although it was admitted that if the dropping aircraft crashed on take-off or weapon exploded at a lower height than planned, there might be fallout.

The Memorandum blandly asserted: “In deciding whether or not to execute each Test the Task Force Commander considers these extremely unlikely possibilities and satisfies that even if they do occur the resultant ill-effects to members of the Task Force are acceptable in their mildness. His decision is based on the predicted fallout pattern and the possibility of avoiding it by the movement of personnel by road and craft to a clear area.”

The Memorandum concluded that “it is now considered that on many occasions it would be preferable only to evacuate the Gilbertese after a fall-out risk was known to exist due to an accident. There would be times to do this and this is the policy already applied to all service personnel.”

The Committee recommended that as far as the safe-guarding of the entire Gilbertese population against the ill effects of the tests was concerned, the Task Force Commander should in future be charged with making suitable arrangements with the District Commissioner, “the nature of these arrangements being left for him to decide”.

How exactly the Task Force Commander and the District Commissioner could decide on the necessary safety arrangements for the highly experimental nuclear testing boggles the mind.

And neither was it explained how the seriously limited number and length of roads onChristmas Islandwere to be used by both Servicemen and Gilbertese, to evade fallout.

There is no record of any consideration being given to the likely problems of organizing the sudden movement of Gilbertese civilians who knew little English, and who also included old people, women and children.

The hurried nuclear tests

  Three tests were conducted at Malden Island and while they were supposed to be high air-bursts, severe damage was sustained by animal and birdlife on Malden Island.  The PCRC book (Kirisimasi…) states thatFiji personnel (including Ratu Sir Penaia, without safety boots since none could fit his large feet) landed on the contaminated island.

By the end of 1957, with the world moving towards a moratorium on atmospheric nuclear testing,Britainbecame desperate to quickly test hydrogen bombs, without which it could not become a nuclear superpower, on par with US.

A communication of September 20, 1957 from O. Rogers to R.J. Minnitt (CO1036/283) explained why the test site was moved from Malden to Christmas Island:

“Because time is so short it has been decided to carry out the November tests off the SE tip of Christmas Island; it would have take too long to set up Malden again.”

  Rogers claimed that while there would be high air bursts as before, there was no reason to fear damage to the island: the “experts” has also assured them that the tests “will carry no risk to the people of whatever island is in the vicinity”.

The testing authorities proposed to remove the Gilbertese from Christmas Island before the bombing aircraft took off and to place them in a ship in theChristmas Islandanchorage, but with immediate notice to steam.  The Gilbertese were expected to remain in the ship until after the test, when they would be returned to their village.

The explosion code-named Grapple-X (of strength two million tones) duly took place next toChristmas Island.  A London Committee meeting noted that locating “Ground Zero” close to Christmas Island had “made the mounting of the operation much easier and had resulted in savings which might be as much as two million pounds”.  In a period whenBritainand the pound sterling were under enormous financial stress, the importance of this financial saving toBritainshould not be under-estimated.

The authorities claimed that reports of damage to the island had been greatly exaggerated, and that there were no injuries to the personnel or damage to aircraft “except for minor damage to helicopter windows”.

When the Grapple Y explosion of three million tones took place eyewitness accounts (including that of a pilot flying an observation plane during the explosion) said that the explosion was much lower (at less than 1000 feet) than the authorities expected and claimed (8000 feet). The explosion was also much closer to ChristmasIsland (possibly only a quarter of a mile) than what the authorities had expected or claimed (five miles).

Eyewitness accounts said coconut trees went flying through the air; people fell down; huge amounts sea and land material were sucked up into the explosion and dropped as fall-out; there was induced rainfall which fell on ships, military personnel and Gilbertese civilians. Scientists ran around in a panic, an indication that the test had not gone as planned.

Did people suffer radiation?

  The actual experiences of servicemen and Gilbertese indicate that substantial exposure to radiation did take place.  Ships could not steam away on time. Contaminated rain fell on populated islands. Servicemen went back to “hot” test sites within days of testing. Servicemen handled barrels (some leaking) of nuclear waste with little protection.

And servicemen and civilian Gilbertese became ill.

The British Government previously denied the claims for pensions by the Fiji Nuclear Test veterans on the grounds thatChristmas Islandwas not a site of “active military operation”.

However, what was the understanding between the British Government and theFijiauthorities when theFijipersonnel were first sent toChristmas Islandfor Operation Grapple?

A communication (dated January 6, 1958) from the Secretary of State for Colonies (inLondon) to theFijiGovernor stated very clearly (Public Records Office file CO1036/283)

“It is confirmed that employment would be for the three months in the first instance and that costs, including indemnity against claims for disability, pensions, etc., arising from any injuries, will be a charge on United Kingdom funds.”

  But for decades, the British authorities kept denying that there was any link between the illnesses of the servicemen and their service at the test sites.  In the London hearings they even desperately tried to claim that the claims were being lodged outside the legal time limit.

But the London High Court thought otherwise.
Landmark British High Court Judgment

In a judgment delivered June 2009, Justice David Foskett accepted that a recent Massey University scientific study by Al Rowlands involving veterans in New Zealand had provided new evidence of “chromosomal aberrations” due to the tests which was “crucial and pivotal” for any potential case against the MoD, he said.

Foskett also found convincing evidence that the British Government and military administration actively withheld details of the dangers of atomic testing in the Pacific not only from the 25,000 servicemen who took part, but also the Australian Government.

The claimants argued that thousands of service men and their families may have been treated as nuclear ‘guinea pigs’ by being deliberately exposed to serious levels of radiation that years later may have killed many from a series of illnesses; while their children and their children’s children may be suffering genetic defects.  The High Court was informed that scientists who planned to monitor those who had been exposed to radiation,  removed themselves from the test zones while servicemen stood around.
Justice Foskett ruled “All things being equal, a veteran who believes that he has an illness, injury or disability attributable to his presence at the tests whose case is supported by apparently reputable scientific and medical evidence, should be entitled to his day in court.”
While Foskett allowed the Ministry of Defence to appeal his judgment, he urged British Government ministers to consider a settlement rather than drag out legal proceedings further, in which case many of the litigants might well be dead before judgment.
British liability for British Servicemen and Gilbertese
The recent British High Court judgment applies to the servicemen who were exposed to the radiation.  There is no reference to the civilian Gilbertese residents who may also have been exposed to the radiation.
Servicemen who sign up for duty for “King and Country” may be expected to also be aware of the associated risks to their person and health.


Colonized people, living in their own homes and countries, made no such commitment to the ruling imperial authorities.


Indeed, it may be argued that the colonizing power ought to have had greater responsibility to protect the health of the colonized people under their “protection”.


If Britain accepts liability for illnesses caused to her servicemen, the case for any Gilbertese victims  should be stronger.


[1] This research was assisted by the kind hospitality of the then Fiji High Commissioner in Britain, Filimone Jitoko and his wife Lina, and livened up every evening with the musical conviviality of Father Mika and Father Ioane.

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