Recognising Britain’s nuclear test veterans

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When J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, witnessed the first nuclear explosion its immense power made him recall a verse from the Hindu holy book the Bhagavad Gita: ‘If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendour of the mighty one.’ Perhaps if he had known then what we know now, he would have used a different image.

The devastating new weapon, when used on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, brought a decisive end to the Second World War. The surrender of Japan, in response to the American nuclear bombs, brought to a close the deadliest conflict in history.

Britain’s own nuclear program, conducted in the vast Pacific Ocean, began seven years later and lasted for over a decade. Those British servicemen, thought to number upwards of 20,000, witnessed – up close and many without specialist protective clothing – explosions they would never forget, which have left an indelible mark on their lives and those of their families.

The wounds of those tests remain raw to the veterans. Douglas Hern, from Moulton, was witness to five tests on Christmas Island. I’ve met him in Lincolnshire and in Westminster to help progress his campaign as he has long sought formal recognition of the vital role test veterans played in those post-war years. Our work together in this effort led to our friendship.

Many of the servicemen who were present at the nuclear tests developed serious illnesses, and, worse still, their children and grandchildren have been plagued by similar disorders which they believe to be linked to the effects of the atomic tests. In Douglas’ tragic case, his daughter Jill died of cancer when she was just 13 years old – something he has written about with moving passion in this newspaper. Hearing him speak about it is as inspiring as it is touching.

Our Prime Minister has a proud record of honouring our veterans; changing the rules so that war widows will no longer lose their pension if they remarry, and fully recognising and decorating those who served on the Arctic Convoys and Bomber Command.

In this spirit earlier this year, in a landmark change, the Prime Minister formally recognised the contribution of the service personnel who participated in the testing programme, and expressed his gratitude for their selfless support in the development of the nuclear deterrent which has kept our nation safe. Now David Cameron told Parliament he was determined to seek a resolution to this issue.

Douglas and his wife are brave campaigners; they know they can rely on my support in the crusade for justice led by the British Nuclear Test Veterans’ Association. It is right that these brave men who gave so much for their country are properly recognised for what they did and what they endured. More must be done.