By Pippa Brown: Pacific Media Centre
Cook Islander Tau Greig and her husband Wayne Meyer hope this month’s granting of the right to sue over British nuclear testing in the Pacific will be the turning point in their private battle to succeed.
They are tired of fighting the wall of silence that greets them when they open up the debate.
They now want someone to help coordinate the victims and their descendants affected by the radiation from these tests.
About 1000 veterans from Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Britain, who took part in atomic tests in the 1950s, won the right to sue Britain’s Ministry of Defence for exposure to radiation.
From their first letter to British Prime Minister John Major, 14 years ago, Tau Greig and Wayne Meyer have been fighting - and they are sick and tired of it. Other letters have been written to other ministers as well, among them former prime ministers Tony Blair, Jim Bolger and Helen Clark, and Phil Goff and Winston Peters.
They feel they have been ignored by the New Zealand and Cook Island governments who they think should assist them.
It is hard to recognise that Tau Greig was a very competitive sportsperson.
Greig is now in an Auckland rehabilitation home and has been told her condition is degenerative.
She is in a wheelchair, has difficulty speaking and is dependent on 24-hour care.
It was 14 years ago that Meyer realised his wife Tau was sick, when after a bout of sea sickness she never got better. It took another 10 years before a diagnosis of the genetic disease spinocerebellar ataxia was made.
Her diagnosis is atypical, in other words, she only carries three to four genetic imprints and not the 10 that make up the disease.
“It doesn’t fully conform to the diagnosis,” says Meyer.
They think Tau’s ill-health is related to nuclear radiation exposure received from Britain’s Operation Grapple tests in the Pacific during the 1950s at Christmas and Malden Islands.
About 50 years ago, when Greig was only 10 years old, she and her family witnessed a test while playing on the island of Rakahanga, in the northern Cooks, when she saw a brilliant flash across the sky. Then the ground shook.
In the evening the sky turned red and stayed red all week. A few days later the lagoon became white and frothy. The fish all died and floated on the surface. The villagers burnt the fish.
The Grapple tests happened 10 years after the Japanese were devastated by nuclear bombs in Hiroshima. It is hard to believe they thought it was safe, says Meyer.
“We were never told to leave.
They said they would come back,” says Greig as she struggles to talk.
“They never gave food and never came back,” Meyer says.
The aircraft carrier HMS Warrior visited Rakahanga and advised the islanders they were going to explode an atmospheric hydrogen bomb over Christmas Island, north of Rakahanga. The islanders were told not to drink the water nor eat any vegetation or fish for the next three to four months.
“The Warrior never came back so we had to live on coconuts for the next three or four months,” writes Greig in an earlier letter to the British Home Office.
It is thought to be one of the biggest hydrogen bomb tests ever recorded, says Meyer.
After the bomb families started dying as soon as the next day, a lot of children died. They got dysentery and started vomiting and died, says Meyer.
“[Former Cook Islands Prime Minister Dr Terepai] Maoate told the people they had dysentery because they were unclean,” he says.
In fairness to him he said he didn’t know what caused the children to get sick and die, says Meyer.
“We don’t know how many died.
“There are no records,” says Meyer.
Sir Terepai Maoate, who worked as a young doctor on neighbouring Manihiki Island, told a Cook Islands Research Association conference in 2008 that he had treated fatal cases of diarrhoea and vomiting. He said he had seen people with enlarged thyroids, but there had not been any connection to nuclear testing.
There were a lot of children born with the birth defect club foot in the northern Cooks, says Meyer.
“The islanders buried their limbs in the sand to stop them twisting, but a lot still died.
“People left the northern Cooks because they thought there was a curse on them,” says Meyer.
He says the Cook Islands government refuses to acknowledge the likelihood of damage because of the distance of Rakahanga from the Christmas and Malden Islands. There was a no-go zone of 400 nautical miles.
It is estimated that the northern Cooks are in an area 300–500 miles south-west of Malden Island.
Roy Sefton, nuclear test veteran and chairman of New Zealand Veterans Association, served on the ship HMNZS Rotoiti during Operation Grapple. He suffered his first bout of ill-health at 21 which has continued throughout his adult life.
The HMS Warrior was part of an exercise involving most of the ships at Operation Grapple where their job was “showing the flag” aiming to generally placate and ease any fears Islanders had, says Sefton.
The area of the exclusion zone that was declared dangerous to ship and aircraft covered 750,000 sq miles but there was no logic to how this zone was drawn up he says. It was not drawn out in a square or circle and there are large areas that are just cut out from the edge of the square in the ocean.
“It looks very much like a doctored scenario,” says Sefton.
The only reason he can think that this was done was to lessen the concern of people on the islands.
“Even with exclusion zones there is no guarantee that the radiation will stop exactly at that point,” says Sefton.
Other factors such as the unpredictability of wind at altitude and the phenomena of hotspots or blowback affect the spread.
Hotspots and blowback are created where either large or small areas are affected by radioactive fallout that has been blown together as weather conditions change. It was predicted that the wind would blow in a north easterly direction for 5000 sq miles but it may not have, he says.
“There may have been areas which were quite a considerable distance outside the exclusion zone where these hotspots have occurred,” says Sefton.
In 1973, the New Zealand government took a legal case against the French nuclear testing at Moruroa Atoll through the International Court of Justice at The Hague.
They argued about the danger of the tests and consequential spread of radiation to the population and environment of the radiation in New Zealand and other Pacific Islands, says Sefton.
“In relation to Tau’s case, it illustrates the ability of radioactive materials to go anywhere,” he says.
Grapple 4 was a particularly dirty bomb and it made atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki look like firecrackers,” says Sefton.
“If you have been impregnated with this stuff, it’s painless and invisible and you don’t know about it.
“If you get hit with a bit of shrapnel you know and you have an idea if you are going to survive or not,” he says.
Dr Al Rowlands is the molecular scientist and the lead researcher of the Massey University study which strongly influenced the veterans’ win to sue Britain’s Ministry of Defence.
In his research, Dr Rowlands found huge disparities between the control group and veterans group.
The control group showed genetic damage of 10 translocations per 1000 cells against the veteran’s group where the frequency was 29 translocations per 1000 cells. In comparison workers close to the Chernobyl accident and clean-up had about 20 translocations per 1000 cells.
“The New Zealand government never fail to surprise me,” says Sefton.
Back in 1973, when they took their case to court at The Hague in a very well researched case on the dangers and ill-health of radiation to the Pacific, they would have spoken with a lot of expert advice.
Sefton claims the government and Veteran Affairs have applied double standards and never used this information.
• This week French Polynesian nuclear test veterans, who had their case for compensation rejected, have vowed to fight on. The French government has previously said it would compensate for any victims from nuclear testing carried out in French Polynesia from 1960 until 1996.
Eight former test site workers who took their case to the Tahiti court have been unsuccessful because under local ruling the complaints cannot be ruled on.
Top picture: Tau Greig and husband Wayne Meyer in Auckland 2009 (Pippa Brown) and above, on Rarotonga 2008.
Pippa Brown is an AUT Graduate Diploma in Journalism student on internship with the Pacific Media Centre.