The British nuclear weapon tests in Australia (from 1952) and in the central Pacific around Christmas Island (1957-58), involved some 22,000 British service personnel and around 600 New Zealand, mainly naval persons. In the years that followed these tests there have been continuing claims for adverse health effects caused by radiation exposure, both to the veterans themselves and to their children (genetic effects). This has persisted to the present day. In what follows I shall outline the claims that have been made and look at the scientific and epidemiological evidence which is available.
The range of adverse health effects that has been claimed is very wide. A (New Zealand) TV1 2005 ‘Exposé’ listed, ‘leukaemia, multiple myeloma, skin cancer, premature-aging, cataracts, infertility and (more generally) premature death’. There was also reference to the ‘sins’ of the fathers being visited on the children. ‘One in two children conceived after the tests had genetic defects’. More recently, a New Zealand veteran, who was on Christmas Island in 1958, attributed a ‘crumbling spine’, ‘kidney problems’ and skin complaints to radiation exposure.
The 2005 New Zealand television programme also reflected a claim that in some sense the harm had been intentional. The veterans had been used as ‘guinea-pigs’.
This claim is also part of a recent restatement of the complaint in relation to the much larger cohort of British test veterans. A 2008 Telegraph article describes an incident in which a British destroyer was ordered to steam ‘through a radioactive cloud’, with catastrophic results. More generally (and in relation to service personnel from Australia, New Zealand and the US, as well as the 22,000 from the UK), the article speaks of radioactive contamination and the, ‘thousands of veterans (who) have died prematurely, often in extreme agony’.
In many ways, this is an astonishing piece of journalism from such a reputable newspaper, since, by 2008, there had been no less than five expert reviews of the epidemiological data on veterans’ health in Britain and New Zealand and they show very clearly that none of the claimed effects have been found. In Britain this work was undertaken by the National Radiation Protection Board, which reported in 1988, 1993 and 2003. In the last of these, the authors drew a general conclusion: ‘overall levels of mortality and cancer incidence in UK nuclear weapons test participants have continued to be similar to those in a matched control group’. (The control group was made up of service personnel matched for age/service/rank, who had served in tropical, or sub-tropical locations but not in test locations.)
In New Zealand the research was undertaken by the Wellington Medical School (1990 and 1996) and their findings, in relation to mortality and cancer, broadly mirrored the NRPB results, but they did report an elevation in the incidence of some rare haematological cancers, which ‘may have been caused by participation in the nuclear weapons programme’. The doubt arose through the smallness of the sample (7 deaths, as opposed to 6 in the control). There were similar aberrations in the British study, including a reduced incidence of some kidney cancers, which could be attributed to the protective effect of exposure to nuclear radiation. However we treat these ‘outliers’, it is clear that the British and New Zealand expert studies do not at all support the veterans’ claims of harm
On the other hand, the fact that there are no significant adverse health effects attributable to participants in the Pacific nuclear tests should be no surprise. As the first Wellington Medical School report also notes, there was a general absence of any ‘evidence of significant radiation exposure’. This was affirmed by studies conducted in 1981 by the New Zealand National Radiation Laboratory. More specifically in relation to the first test, the captain of HMNZS Pukaki noted that, ‘no notable readings were received either from the atmosphere or water by Geiger counter, in spite of passing within six miles of surface zero whilst closing Warrior (the British flagship).
Then there is the matter of birth defects. This was a consequence of nuclear exposure that was widely anticipated in the early days of nuclear technology but in practice it has not been found at the levels of exposure from nuclear tests, or nuclear accidents. It wasn’t found by either of the series studies referred to earlier (Wellington Medical School, NRPB) and the UN Chernobyl Panel study equally failed to identity an increase in the incidence of birth defects in the region of the destroyed reactor. This would not have been surprise. The investigators of the Radiation Effects Research Foundation, in Hiroshima, have been studying the effects of the atomic bombings for more than fifty years, searching (amongst other things) for ‘heritable effects of radiation in the offspring of survivors’. In 1995 they commented that, ‘not a single one of the many endpoints has shown a significant effect’.
There is one last matter that needs to be addressed. The fact that claims of veterans in UK and NZ were not supported by a mass of scientific evidence, did not cause them to end their complaints: they just sought more evidence. By means of a government grant, the New Zealand group commissioned a study of a small group of veterans (50) to determine whether their service at the nuclear tests could be associated with chromosomal damage. This was with the Massey University Institute of Molecular Sciences. Three kinds of assay were performed. Two showed, ‘no difference between the veterans and the matched controls’. The third showed an elevated frequency of ‘translocations in the veterans’ chromosomes’. The results of the Massey Study (2007) were then put out to international peer review by the ministerial committee appointed by the New Zealand Government. These reviews were scathing about the assumptions and methodology of the research and particularly drew attention to the self-selected nature of the sample and the many confounding factors that had not been eliminated. The Massey work does not alter the conclusion from all the other investigations.
We might understand and sympathise with those who have suffered ill-health since their military service, including those that believe that this may have affected their children, but this should not commit us to accept that this was caused by nuclear exposure, when there is simply no evidence of this.