In the 1950s, the British Government made a decision to test the Hydrogen Bomb over Christmas Island (Kiritimati) in the Pacific Ocean. The service personnel deployed there were not provided with any protective equipment and the residents were not evacuated. . Fifty odd years later there are believed to be only 3000 survivors of the 20,000 deployed there – believed to be a disproportionately low number. Many of the offspring of the survivors have been born with deformities. Is this because of the ionising radiation?
Survivors of the Bomb Tests at Christmas Island (Kiritimati)
In the 1950s both the United States and the United Kingdom tests hydrogen bombs over islands in the Pacific Ocean, with devastating effects.
Christmas Island, also known as Kiritimati, was an uninhabited island in the Pacific Ocean, south of Hawaii, until Captain Cook landed there on HMS Resolution in 1777. It remained uninhabited until around 1882, when coconut plantations were established there. After a chequered history of being inhabited and uninhabited, the island was occupied by the Allies in World War II.
After being used as a weather station, in 1956, the British Government made a decision to use Christmas Island, as a test base for the early Hydrogen Bombs, under the code name Operation Grapple. It was the height of the Cold War, other countries were testing atomic weapons, and Britain felt she needed to be able to defend herself in the same way.
A number of British warships were deployed to the area: HMS Warrior, HMS Messina, HMS Cossack, HMS Cook HMS Salvictor, HMS Narvik, RFA Fort Beauharnois RFA God Ranger (tanker) Troop Ships TS Dunera, SS Charlton Star, SS Ben Wyvis, HT Devonshire, and SS Reginald Kerr. One of the matelots aboard HMS Warrior was a young man named Geoff Jenkinson, who had joined the Royal Navy at age 16.
Between 15 May and 19 June, three megaton bombs were dropped and exploded at 18,000 feet about 30 miles south of the island. Between April and September 1958, two more H-bombs were exploded. In total there were nine nuclear explosions. The rationale behind detonating the bombs high in the atmosphere was to reduce the amount of nuclear fallout.
The servicemen deployed to the island were not given any protective clothing, they just wore what the Navy calls “flash gear” – white hoods and long white arm coverings. They were told to sit with the knees pulled up to their chests, tuck their trousers into their boots and keep their eyes closed. Other servicemen were just told to face away from the mushroom cloud and put their hands over their faces. The residents of the island were not evacuated and were told to leave all the doors and windows open; and anything breakable was to be placed on the floor. The scientists and MoD officials all wore protective white suits. Twenty minutes after the bomb, it started to rain heavily.
Geoff said that, even with his eyes closed, when the hydrogen bomb went off, he could see the bones in his hands that were covering his face, as if they were an x-ray photograph. This is the same thing that other servicemen present at the time have reported.
On 9 January 2007, Geoff’s mouth started to bleed uncontrollably. At first, he and his wife, Kate, thought it would stop, but after a while Kate telephoned her out of hours GP service, who advised her to take Geoff to the Accident & Emergency department. When she got him to the hospital, she was advised to take him to a dentist. The dentist advised him back to go back to A & E. As you can imagine, Geoff and Kate were worried sick and didn’t know what to do. Nor did any of the doctors.
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Geoff continued to bleed until, on 15 January, he collapsed at home. An ambulance was called; the paramedics administered emergency first aid and suggested that Geoff see his GP. This time, the GP took blood for tests, but Geoff collapsed on the way home on the way from the surgery.
On 19 January, the GP came to their home and said Geoff had to be admitted to hospital as an emergency. He didn’t say what was wrong, just that Geoff was seriously ill.
Geoff had to be given a blood transfusion because he had lost so much blood, and was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia, a fairly rare condition, characterised by a proliferation of white blood cells and a drop in platelets and erythrocytes. Bleeding is one of the known symptoms. Geoff stayed in hospital until 14 February, by which time he had been stabilised, and the medics had stopped the bleeding, but he had to start a long period of chemotherapy.
While Geoff was fighting cancer, he wondered whether the events at Christmas Island might have contributed to his illness. He started to investigate what had happened, and discovered that, of the 20,000 servicemen deployed to Christmas Island at the time of the explosions, only about 3,000 were still alive. It wasn’t something that Geoff could prove, but he strongly suspected that the radiation from the bombs had contributed to the high mortality rate and to his own illness. He joined the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association (BNTVA), an association that was set up in memory of those who had died and to support the survivors of the H-bomb tests.
Whilst it couldn’t be proven conclusively that the ionising radiation had caused his cancer (there is often more than one cause of cancer) high levels of this type of radiation are known to increase the chances of leukaemia. The American Cancer Society says that there is little doubt that high doses of radiation cause cancer, and that it is possible that the effects of radiation can be passed onto the offspring of those affected.
Some of the other members of the BNTVA have children who have been born with deformities that may well have been caused by ionising radiation. It is certainly now generally accepted amongst scientists that radiation causes genetic damage but it is difficult to prove conclusively. Independent research has shown that there is a higher than expected proportion of Christmas Island veterans who have contracted leukaemia.
The US government has passed several laws in order to compensate those who were exposed to radiation and who then developed cancer, but the UK government will still not accept any liability. The UK government has told the veterans to apply for War Pensions, but thus far, all those who have applied have been told that they are ineligible when their applications are considered. In contrast, both France and Australia have made provision for their veterans and families.
The BNTVA has been fighting a losing battle to try to persuade the UK government to pay compensation but the Ministry of Defence has spent over £4m defending legal claims made by the veterans and their families. It seems unlikely now that the British Government will change its mind.
Geoff's Granddaughter is Running the Rome Marathon
Geoff's granddaughter Hari ran the marathon in Rome in March 2015 to support leukaemia and lymphoma research. Please see the link below for more information.
Hari wanted to raise £1500. She did that, and more, she made £1571. Well done Hari!