Blog dedicated primarily to randomly selected news items; comments reflecting personal perceptions

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Canada's 'Atomic Veterans'

"One guy said, 'Well, there's not much to that crap'. Then somebody said, 'What the hell is that coming?' It looked like a dust storm."
"It was like you were standing on a mat and someone pulled it away. We went flying -- helmets, rifles, we were all on the deck. We picked ourselves up and the loudspeaker said, 'Get your act together. That was your first one. Now you go closer'." 
"We had to march in battle formation right up to Ground Zero, and dig in at and stay there in a battle position."
"They have never come out and said that anybody died of radiation."
Jim Huntley, veteran Canadian soldier

"You could see all the bones in your hand, and see right through him, too [soldier standing next to him]."
"We got papers from the American government that we got more radiation than any of the American forces in the exercise."
Alan Bunt, veteran Canadian soldier

"My husband and those guys were right in the middle of where it happened, the epicentre. Of course, they left widows and the kids to feed and educate for years. Do you think that's right?"
Claire Mitchell, wife of deceased veteran Peter Mitchell
Canadian soldiers in 2
In a photo supplied by Claire Mitchell, Canadian soldiers take part in the 1957 tests. ‘We had to march in battle formation right up to Ground Zero,’ said veteran soldier Jim Huntley
Little was known about nuclear fission's dread effects when atomic molecules bashed against each other to produce a radioactive explosion unlike anything the world had ever seen before. Until, that is the U.S. military set about conducting experiments long after they had dropped bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. The results of those massive explosives were well known; they were the cause of 70,000 deaths and 140,000 injured and the city of Hiroshima 60% destroyed.

Nagasaki saw 42,000 dead, 40,000 injured and 40% of the buildings in the city destroyed in the immediate aftermath of the bomb that was dropped on it in 1945, signalling Japan's surrender and the end of the war in the Pacific, bringing World War II to its conclusion. So data respecting the effects on humans in proximity to nuclear explosions were in fact known by then. Yet in 1957 Canadian authorities agreed to lend 40 Canadian soldiers to an experiment that would change their lives.

It was only once the 40 Canadian soldiers, some of them still in their teen years, had arrived at the test site in Nevada that an American officer informed them that they would be witness to the exploding of an Atomic bomb, 20 kilometres' distance from where they were stationed. They saw a multicoloured mushroom cloud rise into the sky after the explosion, and then the approach of the shock wave appearing like a dust cloud.

When it hit them, they would have had no idea that they had just absorbed an immense amount of radiation; they were guinea pigs. Those soldiers from the Queen's Own Rifles were witness to above-ground tests of no fewer than six atomic bombs that summer of 1957. For one of those massive explosions they were positioned a mere 1,000 metres from the explosion site, hunkered down in trenches they were told to dig and to take shelter in.

The force of the explosion saw its shock wave cave the trench in, burying them all. When they were dug out of the collapsed trench they were marched directly to Ground Zero. When it was all over their experience was to be kept hushed; they were to tell no one what they had seen and experienced. The atomic fallout that they were inundated with was not a topic under discussion. They remained silent to avoid being charged under the Official Secrets Act.

In time, the stealth approach of various types of cancer afflicted their lives with threats of death. Fifty-eight years after their exposure, of the 40 men who took part in the experiment, ten are still alive, all the other 'atomic veterans' have died. In 2009 as a gesture of compensation the Government of Canada awarded $24,000 to each of the veterans, including additional amounts for those who had died.

Tests had revealed dangerously high levels of radiation exposure reflecting their experience. Jim Huntley's radiation level tested the summer of 1957, was 682 rems. Nuclear industry workers are permitted to be exposed to long-term exposure representing no greater than two rems annually in Canada. The 'atomic veterans' attempted for years afterward to get the government to acknowledge the wrong done them, and to receive compensation.

The $24,000 the government had agreed to provide them with pales in comparison to the financial compensation the Americans awarded its own 'atomic veterans'. But even the lump-sum payments of $75,000 given to each American serviceman who was exposed in those experiments represents a pittance in compensation. The very question of the experiments representing an egregious episode of human rights abuse appears never to have been addressed. 

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