Veterans given go-ahead to sue over bomb tests

More than 1,000 atomic bomb test veterans have won a victory in their fight for hundreds of millions of pounds in Government compensation.

The ex-servicemen, their widows and families have fought a long legal campaign to prove that unsuspecting veterans were made ill, often fatally, by radioactive fallout following nuclear tests in the Pacific and mainland Australia in the 1950s.

Yesterday Mr Justice Foskett, handed them a preliminary victory when he rejected Ministry of Defence (MoD) arguments that the veterans' claims were "bound to fail".

He also ruled that, despite more than 50 years having passed since the mushroom clouds appeared over the Pacific, a fair trial of the case is still possible and there was a case to be answered on whether veterans were adequately protected.

However he also said the outcome of the case remained "difficult to predict".

Mr Justice Foskett finished his 217-page judgment with a plea to the veterans and the MoD to attempt mediation as a means of settling the case, which otherwise is likely to be the subject of one of the longest hearings in English legal history.

If settlement terms are not agreed, more than 1,000 cases will have to be investigated in detail to find out whether each individual's health problems can be medically connected to fallout from the nuclear blasts.

The cases include Andrew Dickson, from Wakefield, who died three years ago aged 67, and witnessed five tests in 1958, and Denis Shaw from Grosmont, near Whitby.

The judge said a "crucial and pivotal" 2006 investigation into the impact of nuclear fallout on New Zealand servicemen on board frigates in the vicinity of the blasts had thrown up evidence of "chromosomal aberrations" which could be attributed to past radiation exposure.

Although, on the present state of expert knowledge, veterans were too far away from the blasts to suffer immediate radiation damage, their lawyers say they were still suffering the legacy of the tests' aftermaths, having eaten irradiated food and bathed in and drunk contaminated water.

Although five of the 10 "lead" cases considered by the judge had been brought outside a legal deadline, Mr Justice Foskett said it would be "unfair and give the impression of unfairness" if all the cases were not given a full hearing in court.

Deadly legacy of nuclear weapons

Britain conducted a series of nuclear tests starting in the early 1950s, 21 of them in Australian territory, including nine on the mainland in a prohibited area at Maralinga and Emu Field.

The first tests, known as Operation Hurricane, were carried out at Montebello Islands in the autumn of 1952 with a device similar to the "fat man" bomb used against Japan at the end of the Second World War.

By 1956 hydrogen bomb tests started, officially called Operation Grapple, at Malden Island and Christmas Island in the Pacific.