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For veterans of British nuclear tests, a 60 year fight for recognition goes on via Radio New Zealand

On the beach of a remote Kiribati atoll 60 years ago, Paul Ah Poy and hundreds of others were ordered to turn around, crouch and cover their eyes.

Huddled together on the beach with hands on eyes and collars popped, Mr Ah Poy listened as a voice bellowed from loudspeakers, counting down from ten.

Then, on zero, came a wave of searing heat and a flash that was indescribably bright. “We had the palm of our hands over our eyes, I closed my eyes but I could still see the skeleton of my fingers through my closed eyes.”

“I was squirming because I thought my shirt was going to burst into flames,” Mr Ah Poy said in an interview.


On that day, 28 April 1958, a Royal Air Force plane dropped Britain’s largest ever hydrogen bomb off the shore of Kiritimati, then called Christmas Island, in the colony of Gilbert and Ellice Islands.

The bomb – called Grapple-Y – exploded thousands of feet in the air, with a yield of 3 megatonnes, roughly equivalent to about 3 million tonnes of TNT.


The test of 60 years ago was the largest of Britain’s nine nuclear tests at Christmas and nearby Malden Island in 1957 and 1958, which involved the support of military personnel from both New Zealand and Fiji.

Some 14,000 people were deployed to Christmas Island, working as scientists or labourers. Many say they were exposed to high amounts of radiation, and given little or no protective gear when the bombs went off

The mushroom cloud from the British Grapple-Y nuclear test on Christmas Island, April 28 1958. Photo: Supplied

On their return, many developed cancers, found they were sterile, or had children with congenital deformities and other illnesses.


The government has refused to pay any form of compensation. Instead, the Department of Defence has spent millions blocking legal claims brought by veterans that have gone as far as the Supreme Court in London.


On the 60th anniversary of the Grapple-Y test, as their health deteriorates and their numbers wither, Mr Ah Poy and many other veterans- in Fiji, Kiribati, New Zealand and the United Kingdom – are still fighting for recognition and compensation as they deal with persistent health problems.


Britain’s early nuclear tests were carried out in the Australian outback, but when the prospect of a hydrogen bomb was raised, the Australian government of Prime Minister Robert Menzies grew reluctant in the face of growing opposition.

Denied access to Australia, the British government approached New Zealand about using the northern Kermadec Islands as a testing area. Prime Minister Sidney Holland rejected that approach, reportedly saying it would be a ‘political H-bomb.’

5,000km to the north, though, Britain had a colony where it didn’t have to ask: Christmas Island.

“The local people had no say about this,” said Nic Maclellan, a researcher who last year published the book “Grappling with the Bomb: Britain’s Pacific H-bomb Tests.”


“From 1956 onwards, the British built a massive military base, a big airstrip, and some 14,000 British troops were deployed to the Pacific for this operation.”

Among those 14,000 troops were 550 New Zealand sailors on two frigates, and 276 soldiers from Fiji. One of them was 20-year-old Paul Ah Poy.

“We were told that we were going to do sea training,” he said. “And we were eager because we were young. We were glad to go out.”


The British authorities insist their operation was well planned, and every measure was taken to ensure the safety of both personnel and the Christmas Island locals, many of whom were relocated onto navy ships when the tests were conducted.

Every member was kept at a safe distance, at least 10 miles from the drop zone, they say, and given film badges to monitor the levels of radiation they were exposed to.

However, many of those badges were not processed, owing to problems with storing the chemicals to process them. And, Mr Maclellan said, many of the precautions written up in London were never carried out on Christmas Island.


“No film to record the dose of radiation. Nothing at all. It looks like we were guinea pigs.”


“I had two children, a boy and girl,” he said, his voice starting to quiver.

“My daughter came out but she was not quite normal. She was a beautiful girl. My boy is normal, but today he cannot have children. But the girl, she died when she was three and a half years.”


Like Britain, until 2009 the French government also denied any suggestion that its tests were harmful to health and the environment, until it finally introduced a programme to give compensation to victims of radiation exposure.

But of more than 1,000 claims, only 19 people received compensation.

Last year, though, the overseas minister, Annick Girardin, admitted France had been slow in recognising its nuclear aftermath, and announced plans to revisit all rejected claims, as well as increasing health support and monitoring for veterans.

The United States has operated a compensation scheme since the early 1990s. However, that money is drying up, and the Marshall Islands communities who were relocated by the United States from Bikini Island continue to live in squalor.

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