Nuclear veterans win compensation case

Author: By Kim Sengupta, Defence correspondent

A thousand survivors of the tests say they have suffered severe illness ?
including cancer, blood diseases and skin defects ? due to exposure to
radiation in the Pacific, and that some of their descendants have suffered
similar ailments.

The Ministry of Defence has maintained that very few, if any, military
personnel were exposed to radiation and that, in any event, the compensation
claims were too late as they were made more than three years after the
injuries were allegedly received. But, in a 217-page judgement, Mr Justice
Foskett at the High Court declared he was exercising his discretion to
‘disapply’ the time limit. He also stated that ? bearing in mind the
prospect of a long litigation process and the age of the veterans ? it was “to
be hoped that serious efforts towards settlement will take place… and that
a trial can be avoided”.

The judge said: “A veteran who believes 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’.”

He added that it would be “very regrettable” if it was necessary to
decide some cases could go forward to trial while others could not. Benjamin
Browne, QC, accused the Government of double standards, saying that for many
years successive governments had indicated they would pay compensation if a
causal link between radiation and the veterans’ illnesses could be
established. When that scientific evidence became available, he said, the
MoD then sought to fight the claims on the basis that they were time-barred.

Charles Gibson, QC, for the MoD, said that more than 90 per cent of the 114
essential witnesses were dead or untraceable. Of the surviving 11, the four
who were willing to assist ? with an average age of nearly 84 ? could not
fairly be expected to recall events with clarity and confidence.

A Ministry of Defence spokesperson said: “The MoD, while disappointed
with the ruling, respects the judge’s discretion to allow the claims to
proceed to a trial that will establish whether the veterans’ illnesses have
a causal link to the tests. We will now review the full judgment before
making a decision on how to proceed.”

Speaking after the judgment, veteran Alan Ilett, 73, from Chelmsford, Essex,
said: “It’s a good judgement. I’m giving a thought for those poor souls
who didn’t make it to here. We are going to continue with this, not only for
us, but for those who will not benefit from this because it is too late for
them.”

Seven of the veterans have died since the High Court case started in January.
Many are terminally ill. Neil Sampson, of Rosenblatt Solicitors,
representing the veterans, said: “Our primary regret is that the
process has taken so long.

“We still have a further period of perhaps three years before the case
can be brought to court and sadly, in that time, many of the veterans will
have passed away. We hope the Ministry of Defence will recognise this and
agree to settle the claims out of court, rewarding them with the
compensation they rightly deserve.”

Around 28,000 service veterans were involved in 21 atmospheric nuclear tests
carried out by Britain in Australia and at Malden Island and Christmas
Island between 1952 and 1958. The US, France, China, Canada and New Zealand
have paid compensation to nationals involved in testing.

A victim’s story

‘The light grew brighter and you could see the bones in your hand, like
pink X-rays’

Douglas Hern witnessed a nuclear test after flying out of Britain on his 21st
birthday while serving with the Royal Navy. What happened to him there, he
believes, not only led to a series of debilitating illnesses for himself
but, later, the death of his 13-year-old daughter, Jill, from cancer.

Mr Hern and his comrades were marched down from their quarters on Christmas
Island at dawn on 28 April 1958 to the beach and ordered to change into blue
overalls, anti-flash gloves and balaclavas. They were told to sit down on
the beach with their hands over their closed eyes and knees drawn up as a
countdown to 10 began.

When the bomb exploded there was a feeling of intense heat, he said. “We
were told to stand up and look. We saw a bright, brilliant light. It was as
if someone had switched a firebar on in your head. It grew brighter and you
could see the bones in your hands, like pink X-rays, in front of your closed
eyes.

We saw a swirling mass of orange and blue and black and red and yellow moving
and boiling. It was pushing the clouds out of the way and the noise was like
15 underground trains coming at you.”

Nobody monitored the effects on Mr Hern or the others and no one had warned
them about the consequences, he said. It was as if having used the
servicemen in an experiment the government now wanted to discard them, he
believes.

Mr Hern, now 73, from Moulton in Lincolnshire, is an activist for the British
Nuclear Test Veterans Association. He said yesterday: “It is a major
victory especially as the Government’s financial resources are so much
greater than ours. The problem is that unless there is a settlement some of
the veterans may not be alive to receive the compensation if this now goes
to another court case.”

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