Veterans of UK nuclear weapons tests win decades-long battle for medal

Government moves to recognise 'invaluable contribution to the safety and security' of the country

Veterans of atom bomb tests and relatives at a commemoration event at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire, UK. PA
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British troops who took part, sometimes unknowingly, in atomic tests are being honoured with a medal for the first time.

Seven decades after the first tests in the Indian Ocean, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said the veterans had made an “invaluable contribution to the safety and security” of the country.

The founder of Labrats International, a charity for atomic test survivors, welcomed the government’s recognition, but said “we want more”, including recognition of the health problems they believe are the result of exposure to radiation.

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

Veterans groups say about 22,000 UK military personnel were involved in British and American tests in the 1950s and 1960s, many of them conscripts doing postwar national service.

“It’s great the government is starting to recognise the veterans,” said Alan Owen, the founder of Labrats International whose father James was present during nuclear testing on Christmas Island in 1962. James Owen died in 1994, aged 52.

Atom bomb test veteran Eric Barton reacts after Rishi Sunak announces that Nuclear test veterans will receive a medal recognising their service. PA

“For me it is going to be an emotional day because I will be representing him and my sister will be there and we will be laying flowers in his memory.”

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

“Their commitment and service has preserved peace for the past 70 years, and it is only right their contribution to our safety, freedom and way of life is appropriately recognised with this honour,” he said.

He attended the first ceremony for the nuclear veterans at the National Memorial Arboretum in central England, marking the 70th anniversary of the UK’s first atmospheric atomic test on October 3, 1952.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak talks to veterans. PA

The detonation of a plutonium implosion device aboard a Royal Navy ship in the Montebello Islands off Western Australia made Britain the world’s third nuclear-armed nation after the United States and the then-Soviet Union.

The UK set off further nuclear explosions in Australia and ocean territories including Kiritimati, formerly known as Christmas Island, in the Pacific over the following years.

Veterans, scientists and civil servants from Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Kiribati who served under British command during the tests between 1952 and 1967 will also be eligible for the medal.

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

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

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

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

Updated: November 21, 2022, 4:05 PM