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Should Britain be compensating the Fiji nuclear test veterans? (The Fiji Times, 29 Jan. 2015)


Should Britain be compensating the Fiji nuclear test veterans? (The Fiji Times, 29 Jan. 2015)
Professor Wadan Narsey

 The Bainimarama Government has apparently decided that it will compensate Fiji’s nuclear test veterans.  But should it not be Britain doing the compensating, not Fiji tax-payers? This article is an edited version of one published originally in Island Business, August 2009.

British nuclear tests in Pacific

 During 1957 and 1958, Britain conducted nuclear tests in the Pacific- three at Malden Island, and six at Christmas Island, part of the British colony then called Gilbert and Ellice Islands (now called Kiribati and Tuvalu respectively).

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

A 1999 book (Kirisimasi: Fijian Troops at Britain’s Christmas Island Nuclear Tests) 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 is the former President of Fiji, the late 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 then ultimately argued that the case was launched “outside the legal time limit”.

While doing my PhD research at the Public Records Office in Kew Gardens, London I came across British Government files (formerly classified as “TOP SECRET”) which indicated that Britain made major compromises in safety standards, with clearly much lower concern for native peoples; “Danger Zones” were arbitrarily reduced, and hurriedly changed test sites to save money and time leading to greater risk; and actually promised the Fiji Governor that Fijian servicemen being sent to the nuclear testing sites would be eligible for pensions and compensation for injury.

How “Danger Areas” were defined

 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, dated November 19, 1956).

It 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” but for “primitive peoples”, who did not wear boots and clothing and did not wash, the dangers posed were higher.

These danger areas were given by circles of radius 400 nautical miles, centered on these two islands. But they 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 real Danger Areas would have been significantly larger.

But even then, the authorities claimed that “such an area is patently too large and has been reduced” with the following “basic principles”: populated islands (other than Christmas and Malden) 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 at Bikini).

These arbitrary and patently illogical “principles” meant that the Danger Area advised to the public was artificially drawn to exclude Palmyra, Washington, Fanning and Jarvis Island from the circle around Christmas Island.  Also artificially excluded from the circle around Malden Island were Penrhyn and Jarvis Islands (see the Map).

The minutes of a planning meeting (November 27, 1956 at St Giles Court, file CO1036/280), 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”.

With outrageous logic, 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”.

Lack of concern for the Gilbertese?

  There was no record of any discussion that most of the native Gilbertese would only have their native craft, powered by paddles or sail, who could not in practice be warned by the patrol aircraft to leave the danger area, especially when they did not understand English, and would have included people and children.  Nor would they have known where to sail to.

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 marshaled ashore “in a safe place”.

It was acknowledged that anyone who 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”.

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

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 that Fiji 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, Britain became desperate to quickly test hydrogen bombs, without which it could not become a nuclear superpower, on par with US.

An official noted: 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 taken too long to set up Malden again.”

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 the Christmas Island anchorage, 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) took place next to Christmas Island and had “resulted in savings which might be as much as two million pounds”, no small sum for a cash strapped British government.

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 explosion code named Grapple Y (of three million tonnes) took place eyewitness accounts, including that of a pilot flying an observation plane during the explosion, said that the explosion was at only 1000 feet (not the 8000 feet as planned) and only a quarter of mile from Christmas Island (not the five miles claimed by the authorities).

Eyewitness accounts said coconut trees went flying through the air; people fell down; huge amounts of 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; and some servicemen handled barrels (some leaking) of nuclear waste with little protection.  Many servicemen and civilian Gilbertese became ill.

The British Government denied the claims for pensions by the Fiji Nuclear Test veterans on the grounds that Christmas Island was not a site of “active military operation”.

But the Secretary of State for Colonies had clearly informed the Fiji Governor (January 6, 1958, Public Records Office file CO1036/283) that:

“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 the British Government has denied that there was any link between the illnesses of the servicemen and their service at the test sites, and ultimately argued that the claims were being lodged outside the legal time limit.

Landmark British High Court Judgment

In a 2009 case before Justice David Foskett in the London High Court, NZ and Australian 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.  Scientists who were supposed to monitor those who had been exposed to radiation, removed themselves from the test zones while servicemen stood around.

Justice Foskett accepted that a Massey University scientific study by Al Rowlands involving NZ veterans provided new evidence of “chromosomal aberrations” due to the tests and that the British Government actively withheld details of the dangers of atomic testing from the 25,000 servicemen who took part, and also from the Australian Government.
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.”
Foskett 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 Government liability

The British High Court judgment applied to the exposed servicemen, who presumably signed up for duty for “King and Country” and associated risks to their health.

Not so colonized people, like the iKiribati, living in their own homes and countries, who made no such commitment to the ruling imperial authorities, and who on ethical grounds should have had greater responsibility to protect the health of the colonized people under their “protection”.

While it is commendable that the Bainimarama Government is planning to compensate the Fijian victims of the British nuclear tests in the Pacific using Fiji tax payer funds, this article suggests that the Fiji Government should then send the bill to the British Government.

[An edited version of this article was run by Islands Business, August 2009.]

[The original article acknowledged the kind hospitality of Fiji High Commissioner to London (Filimone Jitoko) and his wife (Lina), and the pleasant musical company of Father Mika and Father Iaone]


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