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Raw deal for nuclear test guinea pigs at Malden and Christmas Islands. (The Sunday Times, 13 June 1999)


 During 1957 and 1958,Britain conducted three nuclear tests atMaldenIsland, and six tests atChristmas Island.

Both these islands were part of the British colony then called Gilbert andEllice Islands.

British andNew Zealandpersonnel were exposed to risks of radiation.  But so also were 300 Fijian sailors and seamen, as well as the thousands of indigenous I-Kiribati.

Book to be launched soon

A book (Kirisimasi: Fijian Troops at Britain’s Christmas Island Nuclear Tests) will soon be launched by the Pacific Concerns Resource Centre, outlining 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 and case studies are famous ones such as Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau, who died of leukemia and sepsis in 1993.

Denial of liability by British Government

However, the British Government, on technical grounds, has denied the Fijian veterans (and their families) any pensions or compensation for their services at the test sites.

After attending a recent Commonwealth Parliamentary Association meeting in theUnited Kingdom, I managed to fit in some of my own academic research at the Public Records Office inKewGardens,London.  I also managed to read a few interesting files on British nuclear testing in the Pacific.

Historical evidence of British neglect clear

There was interesting evidence of compromises being made by the British authorities, in safety standards during and after testing.

“Danger Zones” were designated arbitrarily.

There was also a very risky changing of testing site, forced by time constraints on the British testing programme.  While the latter certainly resulted in financial benefits to the British Government, safety was also most certainly compromised.

There is also evidence that the British authorities promised pensions and compensation for the Fijian soldiers, when they were being sent to the nuclear testing sites.  The PCRC is continuing the battle in the international courts.

On November 19, 1956, Air Vice-Marshall Oulton (Commander of Task Force Grapple) circulated a Top Secret paper on how the “Danger Area” 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”.  The paper declared that for “primitive peoples”, who did not wear boots and clothing and did not wash, the corresponding level of activity was somewhat lower, at B’.

The paper 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.

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 of close to three million tones.

  When the Danger Area was demarcated by the two circles, the authorities blandly claimed that “such an area is patently too large and has been reduced” according to some “basic principles”.

And what were these 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 “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.

Important meeting conceding dangers

A meeting was held on November 27, 1956 atSt Giles Court(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 (through the text) 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”.

The Commander of the Task Force Grapple (Oulton) claimed that “all known craft in that part of the Pacific were powered and capable of 10 knots”.

Oulton declared, 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”.

No consideration given to I-Kiribati

There is no record in the notes of this meeting whether any consideration was given to Gilbertese (I-Kiribati) in their native craft, powered by paddles or sail.

And 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?  By pamphlets thrown from the air?  For what destination?

Fiji personnel also went there

Three tests were conducted atMaldenIslandand the while they were supposed to be high air-bursts, severe damage was sustained by animal and birdlife on the island.

The PCRC book indicates thatFijipersonnel went on to the contaminated island, including Ratu Sir Penaia, without safety boots (none could fit).

Worse to come

At 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:

“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 upMaldenagain.”

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.  It was not stated, how long after the tests.

The fact that these Gilbertese were right in the middle of Danger Areas was also ignored.

The explosion code-named Grapple-X (of strength two million tones) duly took place next toChristmas Island.  The London Committee meeting (atSt Giles Court) to consider the report on Grapple-X was informed that reports of damage to the island had been greatly exaggerated.  It was claimed that there were no injuries to the personnel or damage to aircraft “except for minor damage to helicopter windows”.

The meeting was informed 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”.

Savings important to Britain then

In a period when Britain and the pound sterling were under enormous financial stress, the importance of this financial saving toBritainshould not be under-estimated.

But the question also arise, did this financial saving make it easier for the authorities to downplay the dangers, risks, and actual damage done by changing the blast site from Malden Island to just off Christmas Island?

Grapple Y explosion not as expected

When the Grapple Y explosion of three million tones took place in April 1958, 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 theIsland (less than two miles and 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 radio-active rainfall (black rain), 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.

The authorities have denied that any of the ill-effects suffered by military personnel or civilians, was due to their pressure at the nuclear testing.

A memorandum of November 5, 1958, from Captain J.G.T. Western (headquarters Task Force Grapple) to the Gibertese population at Christmas Islandshould be evacuated before the test unless an absolute assurance could be given as to their safety from any ill-effects of the tests.

The authorities 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.

Then for the explosions off Christmas 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 martialled ashore in a safe place”.

The memorandum stated that, with the experience of nine tests behind them, they now knew what the risks were.

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”.

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”.

The Memorandum admitted that the blasts from some of the larger weapons had “been sufficiently great to break windows and damage unvented structure. Personnel situated in the vicinity of such structures might get hurt’.

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 then noted that the evacuation of women and small children into ships in the dark (why in the dark?) had their own hazard. 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”.

The British Co-coordinating Committee inLondonthereby passed on all safety responsibilities to the Task Force Commander. It is doubtful if the safety of Gilbertese was particularly high on his priorities.

Buck passed to Task Force Commander

How exactly the Task Force Commander could satisfy himself before the accidents that the ill-effects of fall-out would be “acceptable in their mildness” boggles the mind.

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

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 also included old people, women and children).

The military themselves were aware that even their disciplined military personnel (of whom there were thousands on the island) would have difficulty in being evacuated in a hurry.

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

 And people became ill.

The British Government has denied the claims for pensions by the Fiji Nuclear Test veterans on the grounds thatChristmas Islandwas not a site of “active military operation”. Compensation for illnesses is also being denied.

British Government’s commitments

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:

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.” (Public Records Office file CO1036/283)

But the British authorities are today denying that there is any link between the illnesses of theFijiveterans, and their service at the test sites.

The Pacific Concerns Resource Centre will soon be launching their book which details the case histories of many of the veterans and the current state of their case againstBritain.

Those interested may attend the book launching by chief guest, former Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka.


[This research was assisted by the kind hospitality of the Fiji High Commissioner in Britain, Filimone Jitoko and his wife Lina, and enlivened by the jovial musical company of Father Mika and Father Ioane].

[Map to be added]


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