Saturday, January 12, 2008

The British Nuclear Death Toll

I was going to write this post as a combination of fact and fiction, but then decided that it wouldn't do this justice. The following is taken from an account of Operation Grapple by a Christopher Noone, an RAF serviceman posted to Christmas Island in the late 1950s.

Operation Grapple

I was posted three times to Christmas Island during the nuclear tests between 1957 and 1959, each for the duration of three months. I was present for one Hydrogen Bomb test that I believe to have been Grapple ‘Y’. I was one of the ground crew servicing the Shackletons of 206 Squadron. We had two tasks. Weather recognisance and keeping shipping clear from the ‘Test’ zone.

On the day of test, the only alteration to standing orders we received was to wear long trousers instead of shorts, long sleeve shirts with sleeves rolled down and collar pulled up behind neck. Also a floppy forage hat as there was ‘slight chance’ of sunburn from ‘H bomb’ radiation. There were three countdowns at time of test. The first to ‘release’ of bomb, the second countdown was to ‘explosion’.

There were several hundred personnel in the same clearing as myself. Progress was relayed to us over Tannoy speakers in the trees. Instructions were – to sit in the clearing with backs to palm trees and direction of explosion, close eyes, cover eyes with hands, then bury head in knees. The third countdown was after the explosion to the time we must uncover eyes, stand and race away from palms.

We had been assured this was a ‘clean’ test. It was explained a clean test was where the superheated core of the explosion did not ‘suck’ enough ground debris/water vapour for the rising column to meet the upper section in a mushroom shape, so causing contamination and radioactive fall out.

Several people in the centre of the clearing wore white suites and hoods with special goggles. When asked why, we were informed because this group had to watch the bomb explosion directly.

I think we all felt fear and uncertainty of the unknown as we covered our eyes.

At moment of test – despite eyes closed, hands over eyes and knees jammed against hands, the inside of the head became intensely white, heat building inside the body to an almost unbearable temperature appearing to radiate from inside. This along with a high pitched ‘fizzing’ sound. For seconds it was that way, then the light started to diminish along with the heat, leaving an impression of finger and knee bones like an x-ray inside the head.

The third countdown had already started. At thirty seconds, we stood and raced away, standing in the clearing to turn and look. It was as though the gates of hell had opened up, a curling mass of white and red-hot superheated cloud twisting and curling inside and out, covering a good percentage of the sky. It was still glowing red with heat up to half an hour later. I remember that we looked at each other blankly as though shocked at what we saw, having to crane the neck back to see the top of the object before us. Below the cloud that was constantly curling inward, the stem of ‘litter’ sucked from the ground was rising fast to form the mushroom we had been assured would not be. By the words of our own instructions, it was a ‘dirty’ bomb. Startled seagulls, terns and other birds circled in panic.

A corporal beside me was using a stopwatch. I think in our stunned state, most of us had forgotten what was to come. The trees lashed over almost touching the ground, then whipped back, I was thrown back then sucked forward as a double explosion deafened me. Several people unable to maintain balance were thrown to the ground as the shockwave struck. The corporal informed us that – by his watch, he judged the blast had traveled 32 miles. From previous talks, we all knew that was too close and the bomb bigger than we had been informed it would be. We found later, we should have been fifty miles from the blast for the size that it was.


Meanwhile, back in England, peace activists were getting ready to enter the 'danger area' to protest against the tests. The following is taken from Time magazine, dated May 20th, 1957:

Harold Steele, a retired poultry farmer of 63 who lives in the lovely Malvern Hills of western England, last week kissed his wife and three children goodbye and set off, full of zealot's fire, ready to risk his life.

His plan: to get aboard the "peace fleet" that the Japan Council Against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs proposes to send into the danger area when Britain explodes its first hydrogen bomb at Christmas Island this summer. "I willingly sacrifice myself to prove to the world the horror of this devilish thing," he declared to reporters. Warned that the peace fleet may not sail for lack of funds, Steele replied: "Then I will sail alone into the Christmas Island area. Or perhaps I could get some vessel to drop me on an atoll in the area, where I could sit out the tests and if necessary die in them." Said his wife: "I feel the same as a soldier's wife when the soldier goes away. It has got to be done."

Doubt for Posterity? Last week the British government was belabored by increasingly shrill protests against its bomb tests. Twenty-three women dressed in mourning "for the thousands of people already affected by H-bomb explosions and for the thousands that will be in the future," called at 10 Downing Street to hand a protest to Prime Minister Macmillan, then trudged off to the House of Commons to buttonhole members. In the House of Lords, Laborite peers cited the estimate of Nobel Prize Chemist Linus Pauling of California's Institute of Technology that 1 ,000 people would die of leukemia as a result of the fallout of the Christmas Island explosion. Earl Attlee, Labor's former Prime Minister now in the House of Lords, said, "Some scientists think we are going to poison the upper atmosphere and destroy future generations, and some do not. I would like to give the benefit of doubt to posterity. I do not think it is so urgent that we should have the bomb in the next few months."

In answer, crusty Viscount Cherwell, famed physicist and Churchill's chief scientific adviser during World War II, scathingly denounced the protesters as "hysterical people." Said Cherwell: "This sort of thing has become particularly obnoxious since universally respected figures such as the Pope and Dr. Schweitzer have been persuaded to intervene. How they can allow themselves to be taken in by the inaccurate propaganda of the friends of Russia is hard to understand." The facts are, said Cherwell, that "the number of gamma rays we get from the radioactive materials in the walls of our houses is 50 times greater than the amount to which we are exposed by the nuclear tests. If the protagonists of stopping the tests had any logic in their being, they ought to tell us all to go and live in tents."


Experts estimated that there would be very little impact on the health of servicemen that witnessed these tests. The reality has proven to be very different. The following is taken from the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association website:

Between 1952 and 1967 the United Kingdom carried out a number of atmospheric tests of nuclear weapons in the Pacific Ocean and at Maralinga, Australia, involving over 20,000 servicemen. Among these tests were the “Grapple Y” and “Grapple Z” series of six detonations at Christmas Island in the Pacific Ocean (November 1957–September 1958), of weapons many times more powerful than those discharged at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

*Of 2,500 men surveyed in 1999 30% of the men had died, mostly in their fifties.

*In their grandchildren spina bifida rates are more than 5 times the usual rate for live births in the UK.

*More than 200 skeletal abnormalities were reported.

*More than 100 veterans children reported reproductive difficulties.


In actual fact, the latest figures suggest that of the original 22,000 who witnessed the tests, only 3,000 survive, most with serious medical conditions believed to be related to the tests. However, up until now, the government has been reluctant to acknowledge the effects the tests had on those who were there. Servicemen have been lobbying the government to recognise the suffering that these tests have caused and a slight ray of light may be on the horizon, albeit under unfortunate circumstances.

It emerged at the end of December that a close relative of Gordon Brown died from cancer, allegedly due to the radiation from the explosions near Christmas Island. Typically, the MOD has denied that he was even in the area at the time of the explosions. The Mirror picks up the story:

The Ministry of Defence told his inquest there was "no proof" he had been anywhere near the blast and the coroner returned an open verdict.

But now, after Sqdn Ldr Pooley's report was declassified and passed to the Sunday Mirror, there may be demands for a fresh inquest on the grounds that the Government knew he had been irradiated and lied to the court.

The coroner said the tests had "a Heath Robinson flavour" and even swore in as a witness an MoD civil servant sent to observe the hearing, who claimed Sqdn Ldr Pooley was too far away from the explosions to experience any ill-effects.

Unable to say definitively what had caused his death, the coroner recorded an open verdict.

But the family have since discovered a copy of Sqdn Ldr Pooley's report, headed: "Top Secret - Atomic - UK Eyes Only."

It describes in detail how he escorted 12 barrels of nuclear material from RAF Aldermaston to Christmas Island in May 1957.

His job was to oversee the safe delivery of the material used to make a 720-kiloton bomb, known as Orange Herald, then the largest of its kind.

Scientists were trying to build a bomb for use as the warhead in a ballistic missile.

Sqdn Ldr Pooley was also ordered into a Canberra bomber which flew through the nuclear cloud and helped collect samples after the explosion.

He wrote: "The most striking feature of the sampling procedure was the remarkably penetrating quality of the radioactivity. In fact the sampling tent was soon so active the samples had to be taken outside for radiation counts.

"After four showers and a haircut I was still above the permissible level of activity which did not fall to normal until the following day."


It is time that the British government fulfilled its obligations regarding these servicemen. They were treated as guinea pigs by their country and they have all but been ignored by their government, not to mention the mainstream media who seem to be entirely disinterested in their plight. It is time that the effects of these tests were finally acknowledged and all of those that have suffered as a result of our government's casual attitude towards the welfare of its citizens, be properly compensated. It is the very least they deserve.