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By Nic Maclellan
Prince Harry, the Duke of Sussex, is a champion of returned service personnel. He created the Invictus Games “to use the power of sport to generate a wider understanding and respect for wounded, injured and sick servicemen and women.”
But as he visits the Pacific nation of Fiji, will the Duke of Sussex speak out on behalf of Fiji’s nuclear veterans – the survivors of Britain’s Cold War nuclear testing program? Will he acknowledge the ageing Fijians who loyally served the British Empire in the 1950s, but today live with the radioactive legacy of nine UK hydrogen bomb tests?
The Duke and Duchess of Sussex are touring Oceania, as the Australian city of Sydney hosts the Invictus Games for injured servicemen and women. As part of their visit, Harry and Meghan have visited the islands of Fiji. Welcomed with traditional splendour, the Royal couple received a warm embrace in the former British colony, which gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1970.
This year, however, marks the 60th anniversary of Britain’s nuclear weapons tests at Malden Island and Christmas (Kiritimati) Island in the British Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony. Nine atomic and hydrogen bomb tests – codenamed Operation Grapple – were conducted at these islands, which today are part of the independent Pacific nation of Kiribati.
In the late 1950s, nearly 14,000 British military personnel and scientific staff travelled to the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony to support Operation Grapple. These UK forces were joined by 551 New Zealand sailors as well as 276 Fijian troops of the Fiji Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (FRNVR) and the Royal Fiji Military Forces (RFMF).
In April 1958, the UK government detonated the Grapple Y hydrogen bomb at Christmas Island. With a yield of nearly 3 megatons, this was the most powerful of the nine atmospheric nuclear tests conducted during 1957-58.
During these nuclear tests, service personnel were ordered to line up in the open, face away from the explosions and remain with their backs to the blast, with eyes closed until after the detonation. At sea, crews lined the decks of the naval task force. The local Gilbertese population - labourers, plantation workers and their families - were initially taken offshore during the tests or housed aboard British naval vessels to avoid the blast. For the final tests on Christmas Island in 1958, these precautions were abandoned.
Fijian troops were allocated dirty, difficult and dangerous jobs that increased the risk of exposure to hazardous levels of radiation. Former Fijian sailor Paul Ah Poy, who witnessed seven nuclear tests, was ordered to dump drums of radiation-contaminated waste into the ocean. Ex-RFMF soldier Isireli Qalo reported that his crew of Fijian troops, supervised by just one UK soldier, were given the task of unloading the first nuclear device onto Christmas Island. After witnessing the tests, RFMF soldiers were also involved in clean-up operations, such as capturing and killing birds blinded by the nuclear detonation.
Since that time, Fiji’s nuclear veterans have suffered from serious illnesses, including cancers, leukaemia and sterility, which they attribute to exposure to hazardous levels of ionising radiation. The ageing Christmas Island participants are also fearful about the health of their children and grandchildren.
Successive British governments have denied there was any hazard and have refused to provide full recognition and compensation to the former soldiers and sailors. An unsuccessful legal case lodged by the veterans dragged on for nearly a decade, with the UK Ministry of Defence fighting liability every inch of the way.
Fiji Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama is a former Rear Admiral and commander of the Republic of Fiji Military Forces. In January 2015, he hosted a ceremony to give a financial grant to the surviving veterans and the families of those who had died. At the time, Bainimarama said: “Fiji is not prepared to wait for Britain to do the right thing. We owe it to these men to help them now, not wait for the British politicians and bureaucrats.”
UK Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson recently told the Ministry of Defence to investigate whether a study should be conducted into the health and well-being of the children of the UK nuclear test veterans. But what of the Fijian and New Zealand servicemen and their families?
In a recent interview, Paul Ah Poy, the president of the Fiji Nuclear Veterans Association, said: “To the government of Great Britain, the people of Great Britain, we would like to say, please, do what is right. We have done our duty to our Queen and our country. We can only wait and see, hopefully, that you will do something.”
Will Harry carry the spirit of the Invictus Games back to the British Isles? Will he have a private word with Prime Minister May, asking the UK government to extend these health studies to the surviving veterans from Fiji and New Zealand? Will Britain finally do the right thing, and provide appropriate recognition and compensation to those soldiers and sailors who loyally served the British Empire in the nuclear age?.
Nic Maclellan is author of Grappling with the Bomb (ANU Press), a history of the British nuclear tests in Kiribati.
SOURCE: ISLANDS BUSINESS/PACNEWS
Pacific Islands News Association
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International News Safety Institute (INSI)
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