Atom Tests' Effect Being Scrutinized in Britain

Associated Press

On Oct. 3, 1952, a British sailor, Henry Carter, sat in a boat off the western coast of Australia while an atomic bomb exploded two miles away. In the blinding flash he saw the bones of his hands like an X-ray picture.

Carter, now 62 years old and suffering from impaired vision and breathing, has emerged three decades later as part of the political fallout still being generated by the blast.

He is one of about 30 former British servicemen and scientists who have testified in London before an Australian tribunal investigating allegations that Britain used thousands of servicemen as human guinea pigs during its atomic weapons tests in Australia between 1952 and 1963.

Successive British governments have denied the allegations but refused to conduct an inquiry, prompting charges of cover-up. Details of the tests remained hidden from public view in secret documents locked away in British government archives.

Secret Emerging at Last

Now some of those secrets are emerging piecemeal in public hearings the Australian royal commission has been conducting since Jan. 3 in a conference room about a block from St. James's Palace in central London.

Britain conducted 12 atomic tests in Australia between 1952 and 1957--three on the Monte Bello Islands, seven at Maralinga and two at Emu. The latter two sites are in South Australian bush country populated by aborigines, who are represented at the inquiry.

In addition, there were about 300 minor trials, apparently of triggering devices, at Maralinga and Emu, between 1953 and 1963. The inquiry does not cover Britain's hydrogen bomb tests in 1957 near the Christmas Islands in the South Pacific.

The Australian government appointed the royal commission, the country's highest form of investigative tribunal, last year after it was disclosed that a 1956 test at Monte Bello had the equivalent force of 60,000 tons of TNT, nearly four times what was originally stated.

Caustic Atmosphere

After taking evidence in Australia for three months, the commission moved its inquiry to London in a caustic atmosphere that threatened to develop into a diplomatic row.

The commission chairman, Justice James McClelland, opened the London hearings by accusing the British government of foot-dragging over requests for relevant documents.

McClelland, a 69-year-old former Labor Party member of the Australian Senate, said national security "has always been a convenient alibi for failure of disclosure."

"But today it is hard to believe that Britain is in possession of any atomic secrets unknown to the great nuclear powers."

Britain responded by declassifying thousands of documents and making them available to members of the commission and lawyers representing veterans and aborigines.

Cites Ill Effects

Carter was one of several ex-servicemen who have alleged their health was permanently damaged by exposure to high levels on radiation. He said he suffers from cataracts in both eyes, a rash and asthma.

When Britain exploded its first atomic bomb, code-named Hurricane, on the Monte Bello Islands, with a force of 25,000 tons of TNT, Carter was on a boat used to ferry British scientists monitoring the test.

With a black tarpaulin drapped over the boat and a jungle-green towel wrapped over his head, Carter was enveloped in darkness. Even so, he pressed the palms of his hands into his eye sockets as the countdown began.

'Blinding Electric Blue Light'

"At zero, there was a blinding electric blue light of an intensity I had not seen before or since," he testified. "I pressed my hands harder to my eyes, then realized I could see the bones of my hands."

Veterans groups say there has been an abnormally high rate of cancer and other disease among the 20,000 British servicemen and civilians who took part in the atomic weapons tests.

About 130 former servicemen and their widows have filed claims for pension benefits related to the tests, but only three of the claims have been approved. Five claims for unspecified damages are also pending in Australia.

Although the British government has rejected calls to conduct its own inquiry, the National Radiological Protection Board has begun a survey of 12,000 personnel involved in the tests. The board is to report its findings next year.

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher told Parliament in January that 15,000 of the 20,000 people involved in the tests were not exposed to any radiation. Of the remaining 5,000, only 30 were exposed to high radiation levels and measures were taken to safeguard their health, she said.

Not Used as Guinea Pigs

"There is no truth in the allegations that British servicemen were used as guinea pigs," she said.

Nevertheless, David Barnes, 79, a health physicist who was a radiological adviser for the Monte Bello tests, acknowledged that some men involved in the tests were exposed to radiation levels six times higher than what was considered safe at the time.

He said radiation limits set by international agreement were too restrictive to allow military and scientific personnel to recover instruments after the blast.

"We said these people are not receiving this dose for a whole lifetime," Barnes testified. "If we give them a dose of 0.5 rems in a week, then a dose of six times that over a period of six weeks would not be unreasonable." A rem is a dose of ionizing radiation equal to one Roentgen of X-ray radiation.

Peter McClellan, a Sydney lawyer assisting the commission, asked Barnes if such levels of radiation exposure could lead to genetic damage in future generations.

Not Anticipating Risk

Barnes: "We were not considering prolonged exposure to a large population. . . . We were not anticipating a long-term risk."

McClellan: "Were you conscious of the fact of accepting a slight risk?"

Barnes: "A very slight risk was regarded as acceptable. We all thought the doses we were receiving were innocuous."

In an interview, McClellan said that none of the testimony he has heard so far suggests to him that Britain used servicemen as guinea pigs to test radiation effects on the body.

Rather, he said, military chiefs of the day considered nuclear bombs tactical weapons, like mortars, and wanted to make sure soldiers would not freeze in battle if they came under attack.

Asked what would happen if the commission decided Britain was negligent in its conduct of the tests, McClellan said it will be a matter for the two governments to sort out.

"That question is significant for two reasons: first in relation to those who allege they were affected by the tests and secondly in determining who will be responsible for cleaning up the test sites that remain contaminated."

The commission concludes the London hearings Wednesday . It will then take further testimony in Australia and issue a report sometime before the end of the year.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
69°