Fiji: Nuclear Fallout
July 2003 - 18’30”
REPORTER: Olivia Rousset
The Pacific has always been the world's favourite testing ground, at least for Western nations with their colonial ties.
ARCHIVE NEWSREEL: Once again we watch the fireball as it falls, proclaiming that Britain joins the United States and Russia as a hydrogen bomb power. The first explosion was made in ideal weather conditions and it was reported that there was a minimum of radioactive fallout.
PAUL AH POY: The Pacific is such a big area, the ocean, not very many people living there, but there's still people living there. Probably they're all afraid to test it in their own backyard. They should have done that.
Paul, Tui and Joe were all in the Fijian armed forces in the late '50s when Britain sent 300 Fijian servicemen to Christmas Island in the Kiribati Republic. They were told they were going to Christmas Island for training.
JOE: Army is my career, you see, all my young days and my good days I spent in the army.
TUI: I was only 19 at the time. I was 19, 19, yeah.
REPORTER: Did you have any idea what an H-Bomb really was?
TUI: No, we didn't have a clue about an H-Bomb, yeah.
PAUL AH POY: At that time we were not afraid of anything because we didn't know the meaning of nuclear weapons, of new nuclear energy or exposure to radiation. We didn't know what was the meaning of that.
Paul Ah Poy was also 19 when he was sent to Christmas Island. He witnessed seven of the British atmospheric nuclear tests conducted under the codename Operation Grapple.
PAUL AH POY: This hydrogen bomb, it exploded in April 1958.
REPORTER: Where were you when that went off?
PAUL AH POY: We were lined up on the beach, all lined up on the beach.
Back then, Fiji was the British Empire's most loyal colony.
PAUL AH POY: The Queen of England is always the Queen of Fiji until now, even though we are a Republic.
Britain had already conducted three hydrogen bomb tests off Malden Island in the Pacific Ocean. They were declared a success but not as powerful as predicted. So the order was given to build and test much more powerful bombs. These were tested 30 miles off the coast of Christmas Island.
JOE: You've got to cover your eyes with the palm of your hand. You close your eyes and cover it with the palm of your hand just like this.
PAUL AH POY: You still see the light through the palm of your hands and I can feel the light come through your head, through your brains and then they'll say flash.
JOE: And then they count up until they said blast. The blast, Ooooh...Kkkrrr.
PAUL AH POY: To me on that day the first one I saw it looked really beautiful, I didn't know what it was. I knew it was a weapon, an explosion. But it looked beautiful at that time and then turned into...like an ice cream cone, you know, ice cream dripping down the side and then into a huge mushroom.
45 years later, these Fijian servants of the Queen now regret their loyalty. Straight after the tests Paul suffered from chronic diarrhoea and four years later, all of his hair and fingernails fell out, a common story for many of the veterans. At the time, he didn't make the connection between health and radiation exposure. But now Paul's greatest concern is how the radiation seems to have affected his family. His wife had three miscarriages before giving birth to their first daughter, Annie.
PAUL AH POY: When she was born, she was perfect in every way, a normally born daughter. But after she was supposed to stand up, she couldn't stand and she couldn't speak - for two years she was like that and just lying down.
Annie died suddenly at the age of three-and-a-half. Her death certificate says she died of a heart attack.
PAUL AH POY: Is that the answer for, you know, for what I did for serving my country and my Queen and then my daughter had to die? Not only me, the other people as well.
Pita Rokoratu witnessed three tests on Christmas Island. He lives in this corrugated iron room with his wife and two youngest children.
PITA ROKORATU: We give our life our best to country, mostly Great Britain - that was in colonial time - but this is what we get, this small house.
Pita has two potentially fatal blood diseases and extensive tumorous growth all over his body. Paul had 59 of the same type of lumps removed when he was in the merchant navy, but Pita can't afford medical treatment.
PITA ROKORATU: We are all human beings, hey. They should compensate us. They got what they want, the hydrogen bomb there, they got it.
ARCHIVE NEWSREEL: Britain has become a joint custodian of the deadliest weapon yet devised by man.
PITA ROKORATU: They used us. What they did is just like we are animals, guinea pigs or something like that.
The British Government has always denied this.
GILLIAN SHEPHARD, BRITISH GOVERNMENT JUNIOR MINISTER (March 1990): The Government's view is that there is no evidence, either medical or scientific, to link participation in the nuclear weapons test program and the ill health which some of the participants have subsequently suffered.
But these bland assurances are undermined by evidence from the time of the tests. Secret British documents from July 1958 reveal that senior RAF officers deliberately avoided giving blood tests to military personnel serving on Christmas Island in order to escape liability. According to Air Commodore W.R. Staum: If a person was examined and found to be normal before posting to Christmas Island and who later developed leukaemia, it might be difficult to refute the allegation that this was due to radiation received at Christmas Island."
LAISENIA QARASE, FIJIAN PRIME MINISTER: Well, as the colonial power that had absolute authority over the Fiji Islands, Britain had the great responsibility. It was responsible for the health and welfare of the people that were taken there and I think most important of all, if there were to be any tests, they should have ensured that there was absolutely no way that the health and safety of those people who were going to be compromised.
Today, the British Government continues to argue that the test caused no harm. The man in charge of compensation in Britain, is Dr Lewis Moonie, the Minister for Veterans.
DR LEWIS MOONIE, BRITISH MINISTER FOR VETERANS: There is no evidence whatsoever to suggest there's a link between the tests and future illness. Sadly, everybody tends to become ill as they become older, and we all naturally try to link it to something in our past.
LAISENIA QARASE: But now the evidence that is before us would suggest that there were in fact real dangers to these people, and I would go as far as to say that Britain did not take sufficient caution to safeguard the health and security of our people.
DR LEWIS MOONIE: I'm afraid that is just not the case. The intention in every case was to ensure that people were not exposed to radiation, and that is why great care was taken - protective clothing was issued, people were mustered well away from any site of explosion when the explosions took place.
TUI: We got our socks, boots, long pants and shirt - long sleeves - and they gave us an overall, white overall - right up, cover up everything - a hood, they gave us gas masks and anti-flash goggle, gloves - none of our bodies exposed - all covered up.
But only a select group were given protective clothing. The rest simply wore their service uniforms.
DR LEWIS MOONIE: Protective clothing would always be issued to anybody whom we thought was likely to be exposed to radiation. The reason why some were given it and some were not is, that some would have been expected to be exposed to radiation and some would not have been. Protective clothing was always issued to those who were likely to be exposed.
But Dr Moonie's own colleagues refuted this 13 years ago, when the Labour Party was in opposition.
FRANK COOK, LABOUR MP (March 1990): Is the Minister aware that some servicemen and servicewomen were given protective clothing and some were barred from it and were asked to roll in the dust of the ground at Ground Zero? It was a deliberate test. Does the Minister not accept that their health was put at risk deliberately to find out the results?
In fact, a 1953 memo from the Defence Research Policy Committee spells out this deliberate policy of exposing men to radiation in order to monitor its effects. "The army must discover the detailed effects of various types of explosions on equipment, stores and men, with and without various types of protection." It wasn't until 40 years after the tests, in 1996, that the veterans realised they were suffering from similar illnesses. They had been brought together for the first time to contribute to a book about their experiences.
PAUL AH POY: The only problem is highlighted when we start talking to each other, about all our problems that start to come up after all these years. And it's really sad indeed that they didn't tell us at the beginning.
After the book came out, the Fijian veterans got in touch with their British and New Zealand counterparts, who were already fighting for compensation. Then in 1999 Paul, travelled to England for a veterans' reunion, where they screened films of the tests. What he saw made him realise for the first time that something may have gone terribly wrong.
PAUL AH POY: There was a scientist monitoring some kind of a device, and then the actual explosion started to shake the earth and then the monitoring device, the whole desk in front of him, the console moved from one end of the building to the other end of the building, and he stood up, he wanted to run here, and then he wanted to run over there, he didn't know what to do. And then he looked around and then he went and sat down again, trying desperately to monitor things. And I said to myself, “My God, something terrible must have happened on that day.”
Known as “Grapple Y”, this was a massive explosion at 2.8 megatons, 200 times bigger than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Accounts from the veterans of seawater and coral being sucked up by the explosion make it clear that the bomb did explode too close to the water. As the jagged outline on the stem of this mushroom cloud would indicate, it was heavy with debris.
PAUL AH POY: Something really went wrong. And I remember it rained for two weeks after that - two solid weeks. And Christmas is called a desert island. It never rains, but it rained for two weeks.
DR TOMOHARU SAITO, RADIATION EXPERT (Translation): Britain conducted tests on Christmas Island nine times. The biggest hydrogen bomb test of them all was on a scale 200 times greater than Hiroshima. So in terms of the extent of pollution there, a huge area must have been affected by radiation.
To substantiate their case for compensation, the veterans have enlisted Dr Saito, a Japanese doctor who specialises in radiation sickness. He visited Fiji in June last year, to begin detailed medical tests.
DR TOMOHARU SAITO (Translation): The symptoms they have such as diarrhoea and loss of hair or teeth, which the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki also had, were most likely caused by exposure to radiation. I also think from my research that in the case of the Fijian veterans, the cause was not so much direct exposure as internal exposure.
This internal exposure may have been caused by dust and debris sprayed down after the explosion of “Grapple Y”, but Dr Saito says there were also other possible causes.
DR TOMOHARU SAITO (Translation): As they've always done, the Fijians would go near the test sites every weekend and catch and eat fish, crabs and prawns. It was their custom.
The Fijian veterans claim they were never told not to eat the fish. They also drank water distilled from the ocean and washed in the rain after the tests.
ARCHIVE NEWSREEL: This machine probed for contamination by the deadly beta and gamma rays, most harmful of the bomb's radiation effects.
This testing done for radiation on Christmas Island would not have detected internal exposure caused by consuming contaminated food and water. What makes the veterans’ legal case even more difficult is that the British Government has refused to release essential data collected during the tests. Without this information it’s impossible to know how much radiation the veterans may have been exposed to.
DR TOMOHARU SAITO (Translation): It concerns me that the British Government hasn’t disclosed any scientific data in this case. This makes me very suspicious of the whole business. If the tests were safe, as they claim them to be, then they should make the data public.
The British representative in Fiji wouldn’t grant Dateline an interview. It seems they were more concerned about their building being filmed.
JOHN DYSON: OK, my name is John Dyson, I'm the Deputy High Commissioner. What are you doing, please, can I ask?
REPORTER: Yes. I am making a documentary for SBS Television in Australia on the veterans and nuclear tests.
JOHN DYSON: I can make one phone call and the boys in blue will be here and they’ll just take you away. That is not an idle threat. I promise you, that will happen.
LAISENIA QARASE: They have only said they have no responsibility whatsoever. They were in good health, their current health is no relation to the test in those days. So that's the stand that Britain has been taking, which is most unfair and very unfortunate.
DR LEWIS MOONIE: I don't think our response has been unfair in any way. As I have said, we are always prepared to accept liability if a link can be shown. Very, very careful records were taken of every test that we carried out and there is absolutely no evidence to substantiate any of the claims that have been made.
While Paul continues to gather evidence from other veterans of the tests, their campaign is beginning to have an impact. The Fijian Government is cautiously supporting their claims for compensation and politely requesting a dialogue with Britain.
LAISENIA QARASE: Well, I think the very least is to start talking to the Fijian Government and other governments that were affected, even if only to determine whether there is a case or not. That would be a very good start.
But in this David-and-Goliath struggle, the British are unlikely to be swayed by such soft voices. More likely is continued denial and delay until the veterans die out. As Paul Ah Poy keeps saying, “time is not on our side.”
PAUL AH POY: I just want the facts. I want the story to be spread out all over the world for everybody to know. Even here in Fiji, not many people know what we went through. We are the forgotten sailors and soldiers of Fiji and we must be remembered for our services.
REPORTER: OLIVIA ROUSSET EDITOR: JOHN BUCK