British nuclear tests conducted in the 1950s exposed many thousands of servicemen to high levels of radiation. Gordon Murray explores the poisonous legacy of the euphemistically named High Explosive Research programme | By Gordon Murray
“We were ordered to kill the birds which had been injured by the explosion. Some were still flying around, but they were blind, as their eyes had been burned out. We used pickaxe handles to kill the birds. I did not like doing this, but we had no choice because of the terrible condition they were in.”
On 7 November 2019, during routine Scottish parliamentary proceedings, Member of the Scottish Parliament George Adam read out this piece of shocking testimony from a long-time friend, Ken McGinley. It is just one of many horrific anecdotes to emerge from Britain’s secret nuclear history, many of which are being told by the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association, representing men sent to build explosive devices and to carry out and witness Britain’s nuclear bomb tests.
Those men’s story has never been fully told, yet the repercussions of those events are still being felt today, passed on between generations. Between 1952 and 1958, the British government tested nuclear bombs at various sites in Australia and the south Pacific islands. Many thousands of servicemen were involved, serving a variety of functions in building and maintaining the sites. However, many of these men feel that their main function was to witness and be exposed to the blasts, and to live among the fallout – to be part of an experiment on a huge scale in which they (and, later, their descendants) were to be subjects.
The story of the nuclear tests and their aftermath is a narrative of terrifying apocalyptic traumas, sudden deaths, slow declines, cancers, musculoskeletal disintegration, dreadful birth defects, paranoia, conspiracy theories and chronic pain, all undercut with a strange, intangible relationship with change that may or may not be taking place in the body at the chromosomal level.
Veterans recounted being told to swim down to the seabed, wearing just trunks, to collect radioactive fragments; at the surface, they handed those pieces to scientists wearing lead-lined suits and masks, who took the debris with long pincers before placing it in lead boxes. During research for the new BBC Radio 4 programme Archive on 4: After The Fallout, I came across numerous accounts of people washing radioactive dust from land vehicles or planes that had flown through mushroom clouds. John Walden, who served at Maralinga in South Australia, described this: “…in their khaki shorts, bare-chested, they’ve got big, thick khaki socks on, and boots. And what they do is they first of all swab the aircraft down of dust but then climb on the wing that is hot through radioactivity and, as their bum is sliding along, so they’re scrubbing off [ ] So there is every opportunity both from their hands and from their breath to ingest, and from their knees gripping and their bum as it slides along the wing, to become radioactive themselves […] Here were chaps who were made radioactive cleaning radioactive aeroplanes.”
It is hard to pinpoint the moment when veterans began to understand that the effects would be long-term. Pilots vomited after flying through the mushroom cloud. Soldiers noticed burns on their bodies after the blast. Men became ill after eating the same fish that boffins sent away for analysis. All could be easily diagnosed as short-term effects, to be remedied and forgotten once back at home. Even there, when young men – reunited with their families, perhaps back on civvy street – became ill, developing lymphomas or other cancers, or even died at a young age, it would be seen as unfortunate, even tragic. But they had no reason to suspect that the same issues might be affecting a large number of the thousands of other men who had worked on the experiments.
British nuclear veterans represent just one of many groups impacted. Serving personnel from other nations who worked on nuclear bomb tests, including the US and New Zealand, launched similar (but often more successful) campaigns for compensation. Those most deeply affected, of course, have been Australia’s Indigenous communities who lived near test sites. Some of their experiences were investigated by the Australian Royal Commission into the tests in 1984–85, but otherwise have been little heard or recognised.
As the global nuclear stakes shift and turn towards a new immediacy, we must reflect on our own peacetime nuclear history and the community formed through the legacy of those distant tests – the men, and their descendants, who must live with the ‘nuclear uncanny’. We must ensure that their story continues to be told, offering them one thing they never asked for: exposure.