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24 September 2014
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You are in: Inside Out > East > Christmas Island H-bomb controversy

Christmas Island c/o AP Images

After the bomb - Christmas Island.

Christmas Island H-bomb controversy

We follow one man's journey as he tries to find out if the H-bomb test on Christmas Island witnessed half a century ago is now putting his life at risk.

Christmas Island Facts

  • Britain exploded its first hydrogen bomb on Christmas Island in 1957 as part of a series of tests in the Pacific.
  • The test took place at high altitude to minimise nuclear fall-out.
  • The bomb was dropped by a Valiant jet from No 49 Squadron RAF Bomber Command, usually based at RAF Wittering, Northants.
  • The tests led to a major debate about the dangers of nuclear weapons and led to the founding of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) in 1958.

Derek Chappell from Norfolk is a sick man - he has a potentially fatal blood condition.

He was one of thousands of serviceman who took part in Britain's nuclear bomb tests.

Now he has a condition called Polycythemia Vera.

Derek's treatment involves removing just under a pint of blood every six weeks.

Doctors say one possible cause of the condition is exposure to nuclear radiation.

Derek is one of many veterans fighting the government for recognition that their involvement in nuclear testing in the late 1950s is now having a serious effect on their health.

November 2007 marks 50 years since Britain detonated its first fully operational H- bomb, code-named Grapple X.

The government has only ever paid compensation to a handful of veterans - and it still maintains the majority were not put at risk by harmful radiation.

But with so many unanswered questions about his health, Derek has decided to confront his past.

Inside Out took Derek back to Christmas Island for the first time in half a century.

Operation Grapple

When Derek last visited Christmas Island, it was as a 20-year-old RAF serviceman - he had no idea he was about to take part in a huge operation involving a bomb 1,000 times more powerful than those dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Derek Chappell and wife Diana

Derek Chappell and wife Diana.

Christmas Island lies 1,300 miles south of Hawaii and was chosen as the base for Operation Grapple - the race to build Britain's first H-bomb.

Now Derek is among a group of veterans who are preparing to take the government to court to prove their health was affected by nuclear testing.

Their lawyer says there's a serious question mark over the way the government calculated the number of men on the island at the time of the blast.

The Ministry of Defence (MOD) says there were 22,000 servicemen at the tests, but the veterans say the figure was much lower - nearer 13,000.

If the veterans' lawyer is right, it means that the veterans would have significantly more health problems than the general population.

The MOD says its figures are right… but if the case does hold water, it will make a big difference to veterans like Derek.

Nuclear tests

Derek's role on Christmas Island was to take part in the Grapple X explosion.

By the time he arrived, the bombs were being detonated off the southern tip of the island.

Christmas Island

Christmas Island - paradise lost?

Looking back Derek and many other veterans are surprised by the lack of protective clothing given to them compared with the scientists who were there.

The MoD says that safety standards during the tests were based on international scientific opinion and exposure was kept as low as possible with the risk of significant contamination avoided.

But that doesn't explain why the scientists had protective clothing and most of the servicemen didn't.

Nor does it explain why sunglasses were really considered sufficient protection for those standing so close to the blast.

Health problems

Polycythemia Vera is one of the few conditions suffered by nuclear test veterans that the government does provide compensation for.

But Derek has just heard that the rules have been changed.

Derek Chappell and Teeua Tetoa

Shared memories - Derek and Teeua Tetoa.

Since the condition has shown itself more than 25 years after being on the island, it's deemed that he is no longer eligible.

This change has come as a surprise to Leukaemia Research which has been advising veterans like Derek they were automatically entitled to a pension.

It's the principle rather than the pension that really angers Derek.

He and other veterans are worried that genetic health problems could be passed onto their children.

They are concerned that without official recognition, future generations will be left without financial support.

The bomb's impact

At the time of the tests there were also more than 200 people living on the island.

Today some islanders are still haunted by what went on there 50 years ago.

One of the original islanders Tonga Feu, worked on the British coconut plantations but was chosen to help British forces carry out the tests.

Truck bonnets used as fencing.

Truck bonnets used as fencing.

After the tests the British left most of their equipment on the island.

It wasn't until 2007 that the Ministry of Defence completed a clean-up operation and 3,500 tons of scrap vehicles and equipment was removed.

But it's what might be left under the ground that locals are worried about.

Tonga says that these people are living on top of a dump where scrap and a large number of refrigerators were buried.

He says that he has evidence of this because he helped British servicemen bulldoze them into a giant pit.

Weather reports

One key issue is whether it rained during the tests. If there is rainfall following a nuclear explosion there's a greater chance of harmful radiation falling down to the ground. 

Inside Out has uncovered the official weather records for Christmas Island at the time.

Christmas Island aerial

Raincheck - did it rain during tests?

They prove that it rained on at least one of the days of the tests.

This backs up the stories from many of the veterans that they were rained on and therefore were at risk from fall-out during the tests.

Inside Out has made the MoD aware of the rainfall records we discovered.

But the MOD still says that there was never any significant early fall-out because the bombs were detonated high in the sky.

Fighting veterans

Many veterans are convinced their health problems are caused by what happened on the island - but what they need is definitive proof.

A new report on New Zealand veterans who were present at the tests may go one step towards that.

It has concluded they are suffering long term genetic damage, most likely attributable to radiation exposure.

The MoD says it will look at the report when its been peer-reviewed by the scientific community.

But Inside Out has already had it checked out by one of the country's leading radiation experts.

Derek Chappell with children

Derek Chappell with school children.

He believes that whilst not the cast iron proof the veterans had hoped for, there is  strong enough evidence to make the government look again.

The veterans are determined to keep fighting.

Shirley Denson is one of their most active campaigners - her husband was ordered to fly through the nuclear cloud.

Eric Denson piloted one of the so-called 'sniff aircraft' - but when he came back from Christmas Island, he was a changed man.

She is also looking for answers...

Time running out

With most of the veterans now in their 70s, time is running out to get answers to their questions...

Derek Chappell

Looking for answers - Derek Chappell.

Why did they have so little protective gear? And was there really no significant fall-out from the tests?

The new evidence gives them one last chance to prove their health really was put at risk.

And that also means finding some answers for the islanders.

Inside Out has made the Ministry of Defence aware of the new evidence raised in this film - they refused to be interviewed.

The MoD says they haven't seen anything to suggest those present at the tests were exposed to clinically harmful levels of radiation.

last updated: 07/11/07

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