The true story of Britain's nuclear test vets
United States Operation Crossroads: underwater Baker nuclear explosion of July 25, 1946
During the 1950s and 60s, with the Cold War at its height, Britain threw itself full-throttle into developing its own deadly arsenal of nuclear weapons.
In this period, a series of nuclear bombs were detonated in various remote Commonwealth locations, with nearly 30,000 young British servicemen, many of whom on National Service, sent to facilitate the tests and work in the clean-up operation afterwards.
Witnessing the explosions in nothing but their shirt sleeves, they were given no protective equipment and their only safety instruction was to shield their eyes at the moment of flash. Many were so terrified by their experience, their lives were changed forever.
In the first 10 years following the nuclear tests, government data shows there were 303 deaths of nuclear test veterans; 148 of which were due to suicide. Following Operation Grapple, of 122 Army veterans who had taken their lives, 68 of them were nuclear test veterans. The toll on mental health is undeniable.
As the years progressed, the men began to experience a significant rate of illness, from rare cancers to autoimmune diseases, often leading to painful and premature death. Some later discovered they were unable to have children or had children with birth defects and other rare conditions with a higher rate of childhood illness and mortality. By the 1980s, enough men had suffered and were suffering they could no longer ignore the link between their time at the nuclear tests and subsequent ill-health.
In 1983, the BNTVA (British Nuclear Test Veteran Association) was formed by nuclear test veteran, Ken McGinley and an enduring campaign began for recognition and restitution that continues to this day, with many veterans convinced they were used as human guinea pigs, a belief only compounded by their subsequent apparent abandonment by the government and the discovery of top secret documents from the period stating the aims of the nuclear tests 'to discover the detailed effects of various types of explosion on equipment, stores and men with and without various types of equipment.'
Document marked TOP SECRET, 20th May 1953
70th Anniversary of Operation Hurricane
The 3rd of October 2022 will mark the 70th anniversary of Operation Hurricane, the first ever Commonwealth nuclear test. Despite a succession of governments from both sides of the political spectrum, Britain remains the only former nuclear superpower to continue to deny any link between the men's presence at the tests and the health issues in both them and their offspring.
Not one political party comes out of this story with any great moral high-ground and should all be ashamed of their failure to deal with this 70 year old scandal. The plight of the British nuclear test veterans has for far too long been used as a political football, with both major parties offering support and assurances to the test veterans whilst in opposition, only for the the issue to seemingly fall from the agenda once they are in government. It's as if they are waiting for the last veteran to die and for the problem to go away.
Only now their adult children and grandchildren have taken up the fight and they're not going anywhere.
Seventy years for justice is far too long.
Young couple at a canteen dance at AWRE (Atomic Weapons Research Establishment) in Aldermaston