Christmas Island nuclear test: UK's brutal weapons testing activity laid bare


It is now approaching one month since Russian President Vladimir Putin approved his country’s invasion of Ukraine. The violence has sparked fears that NATO allies could be brought into direct conflict with Russia. Putin is said to have stunned Kremlin officials this week after he ordered a nuclear war evacuation drill. The news was leaked on a Telegram channel, the social media platform, said to have links to an ex-Kremlin intelligence insider who claims to retain close relations to those in Putin’s circle.

Last month, Putin placed his nuclear force on high alert after he was condemned for the invasion with widespread sanctions.

Nuclear weapons have only been used twice in combat when the US hit Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War 2.

But they have been tested on a number of occasions by various countries, including the UK in 1957 and 1958 in what is known as Operation Grapple.

Nine tests took place, shared between two locations, Malden Island and Kiritimati (Christmas Island) in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands.

In addition to the tests during Operation Grapple, the US used Christmas Island for nuclear testing in Operation Dominic in 1962.

Here, Washington tested 24 nuclear bombs near Christmas Island as part of its test series.

The island was deemed a “pristine” place by the British military when it was used for nuclear weapon tests during the Cold War.

While South Pacific islands were often described as an uninhabitable wilderness by the military officers who chose them, this was often far from the truth.

Local people were forced from their homes or were left in place to be exposed to ionising radiation.

On May 20, 1953, the Defence Research Policy Committee discussed how troops would be affected by the blasts.

It said: “The Army must discover the detailed effects of various types of explosion on equipment, stores and men with and without various types of protection.”

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Then, in 1955, Prime Minister Anthony Eden was warned that if scientists were to build an H-bomb, it could damage troops’ DNA.

A letter headed “10 Downing Street” and dated 14 November read: “The Prime Minister saw the report from Sir Harold Himsworth about the report of the Committee considering the genetic effects of Nuclear Radiation.

“His comment was: ‘A pity, but we cannot help it’.”

In a draft report ahead of Grapple Y – the third set of tests – Air Commodore Denis Wilson, the senior medical officer on the task-force, said that he expected servicemen to die.

He wrote: “It is emphasised that in the event of the expected yield being obtained or increased there will almost certainly be in addition to considerable material damage, casualties to individuals, and this should be taken into consideration.”


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But it was the local people in the Pacific who had to deal with the long term impacts in what was their home.

Teeua Tetua, who was born on the island, told Just Security in 2018 about her experiences at the time.

During one test she remembered gathering on the tennis courts in her village in the middle of the night.

Ms Tetua recalled how “the people were really afraid”, and that the British authorities gave them blankets and some eye protection, “but not enough glasses for everyone.”

When the countdown began, everyone was instructed to hide under the blankets and cover their eyes.

Ms Tetua added: “The babies were crying because they don’t like the blanket and some kids ran away from their families and their eyes were blinded because the light was so strong.”

She described the blast as very hot and so loud that “people tried to put their fingers in their ears.”

When they returned to their houses, glass bottles were broken. The tests caused considerable anxiety, with Ms Tetua adding: “We felt uncomfortable every day.”

Ms Tetua is now president of the Kiritimati Association of Cancer Patients Affected by the British and American Bomb Tests.

Members of the association report numerous health problems, which they attribute to the testing, including blindness, hearing problems, cancers, heart disease and reproductive difficulties

In 2015, Kiribati’s (the country Christmas Island is located in) permanent representative to the UN, Ambassador Makurita Baaro stated, “Today, our communities still suffer from the long-term impacts of the tests, experiencing higher rates of cancer, particularly thyroid cancer, due to exposure to radiation.”


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