Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the medal was “an enduring symbol of our country’s gratitude” to the test veterans.
“Their commitment and service have preserved peace for the past 70 years, and it is right that their contribution to our security, our freedom and our way of life be duly recognized with this honor,” he said.
Sunak attended the first-ever ceremony for nuclear veterans at the National Memorial Arboretum in central England, marking the 70th anniversary of the UK’s first atmospheric atomic test on October 3, 1952. The detonation of a nuclear device plutonium implosion aboard a Royal Navy vessel in the Montebello Islands off Western Australia, dubbed Operation Hurricane, made Britain the world’s third nuclear-weapon nation, following the United States and Russia.
Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said those who participated had made an “invaluable contribution to the safety and security of the UK”.
The UK set off new nuclear explosions in Australia and ocean territories, including Christmas Island, over the following years. Veterans’ groups say around 22,000 British servicemen took part in British and American tests in the 1950s and 1960s, many of whom were conscripts doing post-war national service.
Veterans, scientists and civil servants from Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Kiribati who served under British command in the tests between 1952 and 1967 will also be eligible for the British medal.
Many veterans and their families believe there is a link between the tests and the health problems they suffered and are urging the UK to hold a public inquiry into the tests. Some claim they were deliberately exposed to radiation to see how their bodies would react and claim their medical records were later deleted.
John Morris, who saw nuclear explosions on Christmas Island as a young conscript in the 1950s, told the BBC earlier this year that ‘I felt like I had seen the end of the world’ .
“I saw through my hands because the light was so intense,” he said. “I felt like my blood was boiling. The palm trees – which were 20 miles away – were burned.
Numerous studies over the decades have probed claims of high cancer rates among test veterans and birth defects in their children, but have failed to establish a strong link to nuclear testing.
Successive British governments have denied that troops were exposed to dangerous levels of radiation.
Alan Owen, founder of the Labrats International charity for atomic test survivors, welcomed the government’s recognition but said “we want more”.
“It’s great that the government is starting to recognize veterans,” said Owen, whose father James was present during the nuclear tests on Christmas Island in 1962. James Owen died in 1994, at the age of 52 years.
“For me it will be an emotional day as I will be representing him and my sister will be there and we will be laying flowers in his memory.”