British nuclear test veterans to receive new medal

The Nuclear Test Medal has been announced to commemorate the ‘Plutonium Jubilee’, the 70th anniversary of Britain’s first nuclear test.

A new medal is to honour veterans and civilian staff who participated in Britain’s nuclear testing programme.

The Nuclear Test Medal has been announced to commemorate the ‘Plutonium Jubilee’, the 70th anniversary of Britain’s first nuclear test, which fell late last year. It is estimated that some 22,000 veterans will be eligible for the award.

The United Kingdom conducted a series of nuclear tests throughout the 1950s and 1960s. The first was Operation Hurricane, which saw the detonation of a plutonium device on 3 October 1952 in the Montebello Islands off the north-western coast of Australia. Its success made Britain the world’s third nuclear power, after the United States and the Soviet Union.

The mushroom cloud following a nuclear weapons test conducted by the British at Kiritimati (Christmas Island) in the Central Pacific, May 1957. Image: Wikimedia Commons

During the Second World War, British scientists had cooperated with the American-led Manhattan Project, which developed the first nuclear weapons. However, this partnership ended after the Allied victory in 1945. In the midst of rising Cold War tensions in the late 1940s, the British subsequently decided to develop their own bomb.

The device used during Operation Hurricane was detonated inside the hull of frigate HMS Plym, nearly three metres below the water line. Two further tests were conducted in the Montebello Islands as part of Operation Mosaic in 1956. Twenty-one tests took place in all, largely in Australian territory or off the Line Islands, such as Kiritimati (also known as Christmas Island), in the Central Pacific.

The new honour will commemorate the work of members of the armed forces, scientists, and local employees from the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, and the Line Islands. Its announcement marks a victory for campaigning charities, such as Labrats International, which has lobbied for decades for test survivors to be recognised.
One such campaigner is John Morris, of Rochdale, Greater Manchester, who was just 18 when he was sent to Kiritimati in the mid-1950s.

Morris, now 84, said that he and other men around him were treated like ‘guinea pigs’ and were often dressed in nothing more than a pair of shorts, a shirt, and sunglasses. He witnessed four explosions in total, the last of which he said was the ‘most frightening and devastating’.

The plaque commemorating British nuclear test veterans at the National Memorial Arboretum. Image: National Memorial Arboretum

‘I saw right through my hands as the light was so intense. Palm trees – which had been 20 miles away – were scorched,’ he recalled. ‘It was incredible. I had not got a clue what was going on.’

The testing programme left a poisonous legacy. Morris and many of his colleagues went on to develop cancer in later life, while Morris himself also lost a son at just four months old, something he put down to the effects of radiation exposure. Nonetheless, he said he was ‘proud to serve [his] country’ and that he ‘did his duty’.

The announcement coincided with a tribute to nuclear test veterans at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire on 21 November last year, attended by the Prime Minister and the Defence Secretary, along with surviving personnel, their families, and charity representatives.

Commenting at the occasion, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said: ‘I am delighted that a commemorative medal can be given to our Nuclear Test Veterans… whom we recognise and value for their enduring service to our nation.’

A government investment of £450,000 has also been announced into projects that will commemorate the experiences of veterans deployed to Australia and the Pacific, including a two-year oral history programme due to begin later this year.