Australian personnel at the British nuclear tests in Australia
Both Australian and British personnel were involved in the tests and included military and civilian participants. Details of the numbers of Australian persons (civilian and military) recorded as present at the British nuclear tests were provided in a press release issued by the Hon. Mr Bruce Scott, MP on 29 June 2001. The Nominal Roll of test participants lists:
Navy 3 235
Army 1 658
RAAF 3 223
8 907 civilians – including 10 indigenous people.(10)
The total of 17 023 persons comprises 8 116 service personnel and 8 907 civilians.
UK personnel at the British nuclear tests in Australia
More than 20 000 British servicemen took part in the nuclear tests conducted in Australia and on Christmas and Malden islands in the 1950s. Of the 20 000 servicemen, most were on national service and in their early 20s. The group also contained 238 New Zealanders and 62 Fijians. All were involved in a wide range of duties from highly technical detonation preparations to catering and small other jobs.
Studies into the health impacts of the nuclear tests in Australia
Several inquiries and studies have been conducted by both the UK and Australian governments and by others over the years arising from concerns that participation in the nuclear tests in Australia has lead to illnesses and medical conditions. Summaries of some of the studies are to be found Appendix 1 to the recent mortality and cancer incidence study.(11) The Appendix 1 comments mainly refer to surveys of test participants that have been undertaken. However, not all studies, inquiries and reports into the health impacts on nuclear test participants are referred to in this Appendix. Some of those referred to and also some not referred to are discussed in more detail below.
Kerr Committee Report
In May 1984, the then Minister for Resources and Energy, Senator the Hon. Peter Walsh appointed a committee, under the chairmanship of Professor C B Kerr, to review the data on atmospheric fallout arising from British nuclear tests in Australia. The review only dealt in part with health-related issues, but recommended that there was enough evidence to warrant further investigation into health affects and that a repository of nuclear test data and files be established and maintained.(15) The Kerr Report was quite critical of the AIRAC No. 9 report of 1983.(16) The Kerr Report was fairly thin on substantive conclusions about the impacts of radiation as it didn t have much independent scientific evidence to refer to. Rather it noted there was much anecdotal evidence of disease and illness amongst participants who had made submissions to the report. In its own words it drew conclusions from evidence submitted .(17)
The Kerr Report was heavily criticised by the AIRAC as being too thin on professional analysis of the evidence and the AIRAC took the Kerr Report as an attack on their professional conduct and integrity in advising the government on the issues.(18)
McClelland Royal Commission
Arising from concerns about the impact of the tests in the Kerr Report and the conflict between the opinions by the AIRAC with the Kerr Report conclusions, the government in July 1984 appointed Mr Justice J R McClelland to conduct a Royal Commission. The report of the Royal Commission was presented in November 1985.(19) The McClelland commission report was quite critical of the AIRAC No. 9 Report and also of the Department of Health survey report. The McClelland commission report concluded that there was no point in conducting an epidemiological study of those involved in the tests, due to the deficiencies in the available data.(20) This appears to be, in part, based on examinations by the McClelland commission report of survey reports conducted by the South Australian government in the early 1980s into the cancer incidence in Aborigines exposed to test radiation and comments these reports made on the feasibility of post-test epidemiological studies.
The South Australian government reports questioned the reliability of post epidemiological studies, be they prospective studies, or cross-sectional studies or retrospective case-control studies, due to the very small population of Aboriginal people involved and the lack of any comparable population elsewhere in the community. The McClelland commission report seems to have concluded that these comments/analysis made in the South Australian reports would also apply to nuclear test participants as well, notwithstanding they are a much larger group with a comparable population in the broader community. The McClelland commission report was also critical of the management of the conduct of the tests by the Atomic Weapons Tests Safety Committee (AWTSC) claiming:
The AWTSC failed to carry out many of its tasks in a proper manner. At times it was deceitful and allowed unsafe firing to occur. It deviated from its charter by assuming responsibilities which properly belonged to the Australian government.(21)
Public health impact from fallout from British nuclear weapons in Australia
A report was commissioned by the Australian Radiation Laboratory (ARL) into the public health impact from fallout from British nuclear tests in Australia.(22) This report was originally provided to the McClelland Royal Commission of 1985, but was not included in the report as it covered matter outside the Commissions terms of reference. The ARL report only examined and reported on the population not directly involved in the test activities, that is the civilian population (including Aboriginal people) away from the test sites. So the ARL report did not comment on nuclear test participants or the Aboriginal people exposed to radiation in the tests.
1988 and 1993 government sponsored studies in the UK
In the UK, two studies were conducted by the UK National Radiological Protection Board on personnel who participated in the British nuclear tests in Australia. The first report was issued in 1988, with a follow-up report in 1993. The 1988 report identified a possible increased risk in test participants developing multiple myeloma and leukaemia (other than chronic lymphatic leukaemia). As a consequence of this report, the British Government extended their war pensions scheme to cover British participants in the nuclear weapons tests who had these conditions. Following the publication of the follow-up study in 1993, the British Government tightened its regulations, deciding to accept new claims only if leukaemia (other than chronic lymphatic leukaemia) had developed in participants within the first 25 years after the nuclear weapons tests.
Studies by Sue Rabbit Roff in the UK
More recently, an Australian-born academic working at the University of Dundee, Sue Rabbitt Roff, conducted two studies (1997 and 1998) which focussed attention on the health of personnel who participated in the nuclear weapons tests in Australia.(23) The first Rabbit Roff report on mortality of 1997 showed a significantly higher mortality rate amongst nuclear test participants from neoplasms than for a like group in the general population. The second Rabbitt Roff study report of 1998 found an increased incidence of some cancers in the participant population than in the general community that warranted further comparison and examination.
Recent UK studies
The British Government has announced that a further inquiry is to be conducted by the National Radiological Protection Board. Also instigated by the Sue Rabbitt-Roff study reports in 2003, the UK government also commissioned a follow-up study on the mortality and incidence of cancer over the period 1952-98 in men from the UK who participated in the UK s atmospheric nuclear weapons tests and experimental programs.(24) Generally this study found no greater incidence of death or cancer in the nuclear test participant population than in a like population not involved in the tests. This is similar to the very recent Australian government mortality and cancer incidence study results.(25)
Monitoring of nuclear test participants studies and new evidence
The process by which the Government monitors the results of studies into the impacts of the nuclear tests was outlined by Mr Kevin Andrews, MP in an answer to a question on notice in the House of Representatives on 15 May 2002.(26)
Kaldor report commissioned by the Australian government
John Kaldor, Professor of Epidemiology at the University of New South Wales was asked in January 1999 by the Australian Government to review research by Sue Rabbitt Roff into the health of nuclear veterans from the UK.(27) Her work was of interest because many of the tests had occurred in Australia and involved the Australian military and civilians. The terms of reference for his review were to basically examine the findings made by Sue Rabbitt Roff, in particular her conclusion that there was a higher incidence of cancer and deaths amongst nuclear test participants, and report to government. Kaldor reported back to the Government in July 1999.(28) The major findings of his report were:
The Rabbitt Roff studies looked at the causes of death and self-reported health status of members of the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association. She did not use any standard epidemiological method for comparing the occurrence of death or illness in the study population with a relevant unexposed population. Due to methodological limitations the studies provide no new information about health risks experienced by Australian participants in the UK Tests.
Rabbitt Roff s finding concerning high levels of multiple myeloma should be tested further by cross-matching the cases she identified with those identified in a 1991 study by the UK National Radiological Protection Board (NRPB).
The value of further mortality or cancer incidence studies of Australian test participants and the combination of those studies with the NRPB studies should be investigated.
Australian government-commissioned mortality and cancer incidence studies recently released
It was largely due to the recommendations in the Kaldor report that the Government announced a study into the mortality and cancer incidence of nuclear test participants in 1999.(29) The cancer incidence and mortality studies studies were released on 28 June 2006.(30) The study estimated that there are some 5 500 nuclear test participants alive today.(31)
Compensation for illness/injuries arising out of participation in the nuclear tests
UK and Australian agreement for compensation
The UK and Australian governments signed an agreement on 11 December 1993 under which Britain agreed to pay Australia 20 million in an ex-gratia settlement of Australia s claims concerning the British nuclear test program in Australia. Under this agreement, the payment was to cover future claims for compensation for participants.(32)
There have been a number of means by which those who participated in the British atomic weapons testing program have been able to claim compensation for any adverse health effects, which they claim to have suffered as a result of the tests. The Explanatory Memorandum attached to the Bill sets out in brief these compensation arrangements.(33)
The Roff Studies referred to:
S Rabbitt Roff, Mortality profile from a pre-defined sample of death certificates of veterans of UK nuclear weapons tests, Dundee University Medical School, October 1997 and
S Rabbitt Roff, Report on morbidity study of the British nuclear tests veterans association and the New Zealand nuclear tests veterans association and their families, Dundee University Medical School, April, 1998.
It remains exceptionally difficult for Australian nuclear veterans to win compensation under the current regime.
While there may be some improvement in process, the Australian nuclear veterans have been driven to take their case to the Human Rights Commission.
There has always been a strong moral basis for government to acknowledge and remedy the degradation in quality of life suffered by nuclear veterans and their families. The regime of decades of imposed contest between the service personnel and government is a long standard insult to the veterans.
For many, the denial of justice is part of the cover up percieved to have been in place since the time of tests.
A coverup which the Royal Commission involved the Chair of the Safety Committee, Titterton, being subject to the secrecy provisions of the USA and Britain, and who was found by the Royal Commission to have acted in manner which placed his duty to Australia in a subordinate position rather than in a pre-eminent one.
Titterton admitted to the Royal Commission he with held critical information from both the Safety Committee and the Australian Government.