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What were the nuclear tests and why are medals being granted 70 years on?

Campaign medals of a veteran of British nuclear bomb tests (Fiona Hanson/PA)
Campaign medals of a veteran of British nuclear bomb tests (Fiona Hanson/PA)

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced on Monday that thousands of atomic test veterans will receive a new medal honouring their service.

After the 70th anniversary of Britain’s first successful nuclear test, ministers have recognised how the work done by the scientists and soldiers involved was crucial to national security during the Cold War, and still is today.

But what did the tests involve, how did they affect the soldiers and why has it taken seven decades for those still living to receive military honours?

– When did the UK become a nuclear power? 

The UK became the world’s third nuclear power on October 3, 1952, with the success of Operation Hurricane – the detonation of a plutonium bomb on Montebello Islands in Australia.

Britain carried out hundreds more tests in the following decades at locations including Emu Field and Maralinga in Australia, Christmas and Malden Islands in Kiribati, and Nevada in the US.

Remembrance Sunday
Nuclear test veterans wearing the ‘missing medal’ as they prepared to march along Whitehall on Remembrance Sunday in London earlier this month (Victoria Jones/PA)

The most notorious bomb was Operation Grapple Y in 1958, which was more than 100 times more powerful than the explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

During the Second World War, the United States became the first nation to develop nuclear weapons, and the then-Soviet Union tested its first nuclear weapon in 1949.

– What did the tests involve and how did they affect the soldiers? 

The tests involved experimenting with plutonium and hydrogen bombs to determine their scope and effectiveness.

Soldiers who took part were often exposed to high levels of radiation without adequate safety equipment and many would go on to suffer with rare cancers and disease, as would some of their children.

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has disputed the link between the nuclear tests and ill health, saying that several studies found no association.

– How many people took part? 

Around 22,000 British soldiers and civilians witnessed hundreds of atomic tests and were exposed to radiation between 1952 and 1967.

Nuclear test veterans honoured
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and minister for Veterans’ Affairs, Johnny Mercer (third right), during a commemoration for veterans of the UK’s nuclear test programme on Monday (Joe Giddens/PA).

Some 1,500 are thought to survive today, although their efforts had never been formally recognised.

Scientists and employees from Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Kiribati who worked under UK command are also eligible for the medals.

– What led to the medal announcement?

Mr Sunak’s announcement follows several years of campaigning by veterans and charities, and it coincides with the 70-year anniversary of Operation Hurricane.

Labrats International, which represents those affected by nuclear tests, launched a campaign called Look Me In The Eye in 2020, challenging then-prime minister Boris Johnson to meet with veterans and calling for their recognition through medals.

In June 2021, the charity’s founder Alan Owen met with Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, and in June 2022 with Mr Johnson.

In the days before his resignation in July, Mr Johnson said that atomic test participants deserved medals and a process to award them was under way.

– Why did the Government take 70 years to grant the medals?

In December 2020, the Government’s military sub-committee advised against awarding atomic test veterans because they had not faced adequate risk, according to Labrats International.

Victory in Japan Day 75th anniversary
Boris Johnson indicated he had not been educated about nuclear test soldiers when pushed to award them with medals (Anthony Devlin/PA)

Mr Johnson also indicated that he was not aware of the details of the nuclear testing programme and how it affected soldiers.

According to The Mirror, during a meeting with veterans earlier this year, he said: “I have never been educated about this”.

– When will veterans receive their medals?

Downing Street has said the first awards will be made in 2023.

Veterans will be able to apply for the medals and relatives of those who have died can apply for posthumous recognition.

– Which other countries have recognised nuclear test veterans with medals?

Nations including Fiji, New Zealand, the US and France have previously given medals to citizens involved in nuclear tests.