Seventy years after Britain detonated a nuclear bomb in the Indian Ocean, troops who participated – sometimes unwittingly – in the country’s nuclear weapons tests are being awarded a medal.

The UK government’s announcement of the Nuclear Test Medal on Monday is a victory for veterans and their families, who have campaigned for recognition for years.

Now many want recognition of the health problems they believe they have suffered as a result of exposure to radiation.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the medal was “a lasting symbol of our country’s gratitude” to the test veterans.

“Their dedication and service have kept the peace for the past 70 years, and it is only right that their contribution to our security, freedom and way of life be appropriately recognized with this honor,” he said.

Sunak attended the first-ever nuclear veterans ceremony at the National Memorial Arboretum in central England, marking the 70th anniversary of the United Kingdom’s first atmospheric atomic test on October 3, 1952.

Operation Hurricane

The detonation of a plutonium implosion device aboard a Royal Navy ship in the Montebello Islands off the coast of Western Australia, dubbed Operation Hurricane, made Britain the third nuclear-armed nation in the world after the United States and Russia.

Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said the participants made an “invaluable contribution to the safety and security of the UK”.

Nuclear test veterans and their families protest outside Downing Street in London
Nuclear test veterans and their families protest outside Downing Street in London [File: Andy Rain/EPA]

The UK produced further nuclear explosions in Australia and ocean areas, including Christmas Island, in subsequent years.

Veteran groups say about 22,000 British servicemen were involved in British and American tests in the 1950s and 1960s, many of them conscripts doing post-war national service.

Veterans, scientists and civil servants from Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Kiribati who served under British command between 1952 and 1967 are also eligible to receive the British Medal.

Many veterans and their families are convinced there is a link between the tests and the health problems they have suffered, and are urging the UK to hold a public inquiry into the tests.

Some claim they were deliberately exposed to radiation to see how their bodies would react, claiming their medical records were later suppressed.

‘The end of the world’

John Morris, who saw nuclear explosions on Christmas Island as a young conscript in the 1950s, told the BBC earlier this year that “I felt like I had seen the end of the world”.

“I saw right through my hands how intense the light was,” he said. β€œIt felt like my blood was boiling. The palm trees – which had been 20 miles [32km] gone – were scorched.

Numerous studies over the decades have examined allegations of high rates of cancer among test veterans and of birth defects in their children, but have failed to establish a strong connection to the nuclear tests.

Successive British governments have denied that troops were exposed to unsafe levels of radiation.

Alan Owen, founder of Labrats International, a charity for nuclear test survivors, welcomed the government’s recognition but said “we want more”.

“It’s great that the government is starting to recognize the veterans,” said Owen, whose father James was present during nuclear tests on Christmas Island in 1962. James Owen died in 1994, aged 52.

“It will be an emotional day for me because I will represent him and my sister will be there and we will lay flowers in his memory.”

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