Nuclear Veterans Want Better Compo Deal
RAAF veteran Geoff Gates drove back and forth through the South Australian bush wearing just shorts, shirt and boots, occasionally wondering why British scientists wore overalls and showered at the end of each day.
He says it’s clear they knew then what he well knows now – that area of Maralinga was dangerously contaminated with radiation. His health went downhill in the 1980s and in 1999 he was diagnosed with a brain tumour.
Mr Gates, 71, from Nerriga, near Braidwood, NSW, will join some 300 other Australian nuclear veterans, spouses and children in piggy-backing on a class action by UK nuclear veterans seeking compensation from the British government.
He also wants the Australian government to do more for the nuclear veterans.
“We haven’t been in a war but if that place wasn’t as deadly and dangerous as a war zone, then I’ll be damned,” he told reporters on Thursday.
“Australian veterans are dying. The longer the government waits, the less of us they will end up having to compensate.”
Britain exploded seven atomic bombs in the South Australian outback in 1956-57 but continued the nuclear test program through to May 1963 with a large number of minor trials of items such as nuclear initiators.
Mr Gates’ year in Maralinga in 1961-62 coincided with some of the dirtiest of these trials which contributed by far the largest amount of uranium and plutonium contamination to the site.
Federal Veterans Affairs Minister Alan Griffin said the government was still considering how to provide a better deal for Australian nuclear test veterans.
He said the government had received more than 470 submissions, 307 relating to nuclear test participants, in its reassessment of the 2003 Clarke Review of Veterans Entitlements.
“Many of these issues are complex and the government will announce its decision when all matters have been fully considered,” he said in a statement.
Independent Senator Nick Xenophon said Labor in opposition urged the coalition to adopt the findings of the Clarke Review which recommended the service of the nuclear veterans be regarded as “non-warlike hazardous”.
That would grant veterans access to significant benefits including the Gold Card. The government is now reconsidering those recommendations.
Senator Xenophon said a statutory compensation scheme was the best way to go.
He said the US, Russia, France and even China had compensation schemes for nuclear veterans, but not Australia.
“These people have been through enough. There are only 2,000 veterans, of the 8,000, who are still alive. The longer the government drags this out, the fewer people there will be to compensate.”
Lawyer Tom Goudkamp said there was no doubt that Australian veterans who had suffered from exposure to radiation had a very solid claim for compensation through the case against the UK Ministry of Defence.
He said the Australian government would have to indemnify the British government for any payout to Australian veterans.
“I had hoped that litigation would be a matter of last resort and I am sure the veterans feel the same way,” he said.
“But we feel we have been pushed into a corner and don’t get any positive response from the government.”