Veterans Minister considers research into children’s ‘DNA damage’ from Cold War nuclear bomb tests

Thousands of sick children and adults may finally be offered government research into whether their DNA was damaged by Cold War nuclear bomb tests.

An estimated 155,000 descendants of National Servicemen who took part in atomic weapons tests in the 1950s now report 10 times the normal rate birth defects, and are five times more likely to die as infants.

Now Veterans Minister Johnny Mercer has promised to consider thorough research into whether they suffer a genetic legacy from Britain’s radiation experiments.

He told campaigners in a Zoom meeting: “I am happy to look into the descendants. I will certainly look at the viability of [a study].”

If it gets the go-ahead, it would be the first time any nuclear power has considered the health impact of the weapons on descendants of those who took part in their development.

The only other research ever done was on birth defects in children born in Hiroshima and Nagasaki after atom bombs were dropped on the cities at the end of the Second World War, and that ended in 1954.

Mr Mercer also pledged to consider introducing a US-style automatic war pension payout for nuclear test veterans similar to the programme introduced by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.

Under it, any veteran who can prove service at a US test and later developed one of 25 radiogenic illnesses qualifies for a $76,000 payout.

Some British veterans ordered to serve at American tests have qualified for it, although their own government in the UK has fought against all claims for compensation. It also expects every test veteran to provide evidence of their radiation dose, although many of them never had one taken and the MoD holds the records of those that it did check on.

Steve Purse, 47, was born with stunted limbs, a curved spine and one leg bent 45 degrees the wrong way.

Doctors have never been able to define his condition. He said a study like the one Mercer is considering would be “the first glimmer of hope” for a solution to his problems.

“They’ve never considered us, but there are thousands of us not just with illnesses that take a few pills but lifelong, debilitating conditions,” he said.

“If they start to count us, for the first time, then the next step may be studies into how to actually fix, or limit, the problems we’ve got.”

His dad David was a flight lieutenant in charge of the airfield at Maralinga, South Australia, during hundreds of highly toxic explosions of atomic detonators in the 1960s called the ‘minor trials’.

The tests involved exploding and burning radioactive material including plutonium, uranium, scandium, lead and beryllium over more than 70 acres of Outback in a 10 year period. The aim was to improve components of the bombs, and to study what might happen in the event of an accident.

Steve, an actor, resigned himself to never having children, but recently married and is now expecting his first child in late spring.

He said: “It’s always at the back of your mind, will there be something wrong. At the 20-week scan they said the baby’s limbs were the right length and everything looked normal.

“But my child deserves to know as much as possible as he grows up, so this study can only be positive.”

Previous governments have ruled it is too difficult to find descendants of the servicemen at the tests.

But Public Health England has assured campaigners that, as test veteran health records have all been flagged for research, it is possible to trace their children and assess their health for the first time.