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Nuke test survivors to take battle to UK

16/12/2009


Article courtesy of Sydney Morning Herald - ANDREA HAYWARD
December 16, 2009



The fallout continues for Australian veterans exposed to British nuclear testing in the 1950s and '60s, as they take their legal battle for compensation to London.

At the height of the Cold War, the then British prime minister Harold Macmillan made a request to the Australian government for a permanent site to test nuclear weapons.

Then Australian prime minister Robert Menzies agreed to the request, and 17 atomic bombs were detonated at Maralinga in South Australia and the Monte Bello Islands, off WA's Pilbara coast, between 1952 and 1958.

The British government paid STG20 million pounds ($A35.92 million) to Australia in 1993, but veterans have not received compensation for their exposure to the radioactive material.

About 8000 defence force personnel from the navy, army and airforce were exposed to the blasts, but fewer than 2000 are still alive.

They were ordered into radiation zones and told to clean planes and vehicles following the blasts.

The veterans were not entitled to veteran's entitlements because they did not serve overseas.

Sydney law firm Stacks will represent the Australian Nuclear Veterans Association (ANVA) in London next year when the ex-servicemen join a class action of 1000 British ex-servicemen and widows who have won the right to take the UK Ministry of Defence to court for compensation.

The decision is under appeal by the British government, which will be heard in May, with a decision expected later next year, lawyer Tom Goudkamp said.

He said if the class action is successful and the British government is ordered to pay the victims the Australian government will have to pay the British government that amount to indemnify it.

"The British government paid the Australian government 20 million pounds in 1993, and I assume that was for a compensation fund, but it has never been paid to the victims," Mr Goudkamp told AAP.

ANVA national president Ric Johnstone, a former RAAF serviceman, was sent to Maralinga in South Australia in 1956 ahead of tests.

He said he saw many of his mates die of cancer or develop blood conditions in their 30s.

Mr Johnstone said the main concern for veterans now was their wives and children.

"We're not so worried now about ourselves because we're all in our mid to late 70s and most of our mates are dead and gone anyhow," he said.

"But we're extremely worried about all those widows who have never had any compensation and plus we've got offspring that were born with genetic defects, and that's going to go on for a long period of time we're told."

The men exposed to the blasts developed cancers at three times the rate of other men, ANVA claims.

In 2006, the federal government said it would pay for the cancer treatment of all surviving Australians who took part in the tests.

Mr Johnstone said the veterans were not seeking large amounts of compensation.

"We don't want $1 million each. We just want to die with our dignity and our service recognised as hazardous like it was," he said.

"We want some idea the offspring are going to be looked after."

The tests were conducted in secret, and the servicemen were told little of the potential risks to their health.

Pilots were ordered to fly through atomic mushroom clouds which were as big as those produced by the bombs dropped by the Americans on Hiroshima in Japan.

Mr Johnstone said the public was told very little and certainly not of the hazards of the radiation from the blast.

"People all know about Agent Orange and Vietnam because they were getting it on the TV in their lounge rooms, but what we did was all top secret," Mr Johnstone said.

 

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