Academic journal article New Zealand International Review


Academic journal article New Zealand International Review


Article excerpt

Ron Smith argues that there are no grounds for compensating children of nuclear test veterans for alleged health problems arising from such tests.

In August 1998 a formal board of inquiry was announced into the claimed health problems of the children of New Zealand veterans of the Vietnam War and of the British nuclear tests at Christmas Island. The inquiry was to determine whether exposure to defoliants or to nuclear radiation (respectively) was responsible for health problems in the children of these veterans and to make recommendations with regard to `medical and social care'. There was no mention of the issue of compensation in the terms of reference but, equally, there is no doubt that that is what the claimants want and what earlier government statements have suggested they might get.(1)

There is no question that persons who suffer injury in the public service deserve compensation. This would also apply to their children in the event that they suffered harm as a consequence of parental service. Equally, it is clear that it would be obnoxious to public policy to pay compensation in respect of health effects that cannot be shown to be the consequence of such service. This would be to advantage one group of sufferers over another, where there was no basis for conferring such an advantage.

There are undoubted problems in demonstrating the relevant cause/effect relationship in the Vietnam War and Christmas Island sort of case, especially if a high degree of certainty is demanded. On the other hand, any claim must establish a basic plausibility if a settlement in relation to it is not to be completely arbitrary. To put it in legal terms, the necessary relationship between service and adverse effect needs to be shown to be at least probable (if not beyond reasonable doubt). Accepting that the latter might not be possible is not to say that there is no requirement of proof at all.

It is not enough to say (as a United States nuclear test veteran was recently cited as saying) that `Radiation illness can't always be proved, but there's a duty of care to these people'.(2) Surely this duty of care only arises where there are reasonable grounds to believe that the illness is related to their service experience. This is why the United States Radiation-exposed Veterans Compensation Act, 1988, presumes a service connection only in the case of veterans with specific cancers known to be associated with nuclear radiation exposure.(3)

In what follows, the issue of health consequences from service exposure is examined only in relation to the participation of New Zealand naval personnel in the nuclear tests around Christmas Island in the years 1957 and 1958. The parallel issue of adverse effects on the children of Vietnam War veterans is not considered further.

British tests

The British nuclear weapon tests of 1957 and 1958 were undertaken to prove British designs for a new generation of much more powerful thermonuclear weapons (hydrogen bombs) for which the previous test sites in Australia were judged unsuitable. The base for the tests was the large coral atoll of Christmas Island, situated virtually in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and just north of the Equator. Christmas Island is now part of the state of Kiribati (and Christmas Island is now called Kirimati). The New Zealand contribution to the test programme was to conduct an initial survey of the proposed site and to provide observation ships during the tests themselves.

Over the years 1956-57 an airstrip and port facility was built on Christmas Island, especially for the up-coming test programme. Up to that point there was little infrastructure on the island and few, if any, permanent inhabitants. Christmas Island was the base for all the nuclear tests that took place, although the first three in the series were staged at Malden Island. This is a rather smaller atoll, several hundred miles away to the south and beyond the Equator. …

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