No justice, no compassion: just another day at the Ministry of Defence

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Although the Ministry of Defence has a rather chequered history, one full of mistakes, corruption and callous insensitivity, its decision this week to deny compensation to soldiers it deliberately exposed to nuclear blasts must surely be up there with some of its worst moments. The department’s bribery scandals in the 1980s, its singular inability to properly supply British troops with helicopters, its utter disregard for Gurkha veterans, its recent data loss scandals; this latest scandal challenges them all for sheer arrogance and maliciousness.

In the 1950s, in its rush to bolster its nuclear arsenal at the outset of the Cold War, Britain performed several nuclear tests in the South Pacific. In some of these tests, members of the British, Australian and New Zealand armed forces, along with some Fijians, were exposed to nuclear bomb blasts.

They were given no protection; in some cases they were told simply to tuck their trousers into their socks and to cover their eyes. One group of soldiers was so badly irradiated that over the following days their urine was found to be highly radioactive; all have since developed cancers, skin problems or infertility in the years following the blast. They were never informed of what was going on: some were simply told that they were about to witness “the greatest fireworks display that the world had ever seen.” Government records show that scientists conducting the tests had no idea what they were doing.

The victims brought their case to the High Court last week, claiming that they were owed compensation as a result of the MOD’s actions. Their claims potentially reach into the millions of pounds. The Ministry of Defence, however, has no sympathy for their plight. It claims that their case was launched outside the legal time limit, and has so far invested millions of pounds into fighting the victims’ case tooth and nail–forcing the victims to find a law firm willing to take on the huge risk of paying the millions of pounds in fees should the MOD succeed in their efforts to crush the victim’s appeal.

And yet their protestations are in complete contrast to the line that they have adopted previously. When other attempts have been made to claim compensation, the MOD have decreed that such claims must wait, until science could establish a definite link between exposure to absurdly high levels of radiation and the development of health problems–as if such a link was not obvious. Now that science, and the government’s own records, have demonstrated such a link, the MOD has taken the opposite tack; now it claims that the victims have waited too long. It is flexing its considerable legal muscle, spending millions of pounds on lawyers, and for what? To deny 998 victims of government abuse the compensation that they are owed. This is beyond Kafkaesque; it’s absolutely preposterous.

Not only were the MOD reckless and cavalier in the extreme to have exposed these people to such destruction; that they refuse point-blank to accept responsibility, to apologise, and to compensate their victims demonstrates a callousness that is almost beyond comprehension.