22 May 2020

Calls for Mururoa veterans and descendants registry

7:45 am on 22 May 2020

There are calls for a registry to be established for Mururoa veterans and their families after research revealed prevalent health woes linked to radiation exposure.

Picture taken in 1971, showing a nuclear explosion in Mururoa atoll. AFP PHOTO (Photo by AFP)

Picture taken in 1971, showing a nuclear explosion in Mururoa atoll. Photo: AFP

A first of its kind study, published today in the New Zealand Medical Journal looked at 83 veterans and 65 of their children, shows 37 percent of nuclear war veterans have prostate cancer, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, leukaemia and skin cancers. Joint conditions are also common at 31 percent.

The study was based on members of the crews of HMNZS Otago and HMNZS Canterbury, deployed to Mururoa who witnessed the French nuclear explosions in 1973, along with their children. Veterans from Operation Grapple who served at Christmas (now Kirimite) and Malden Islands in 1957 and 58 during the British atmospheric tests were also encouraged to participate.

University of Otago Associate Professor David McBride said, infertility and anxiety were also common in veteran's children.

About 40 percent of the veteran's children reported issues with fertility, citing endometriosis, miscarriages and polycystic ovarian syndrome. Some reported taking a year to conceive children (though this does not meet the criteria for infertility) and others said they had chosen not to have children because of their father's exposure to the nuclear tests. By comparison, only 16 percent of veterans identified fertility as an issue.

Currently, nuclear war veterans are covered for any medical repercussions of radiation exposure, but not their descendants.

McBride said, "Veterans aren't getting younger and they deserve more studies to obtain further information and establish a registry" to support the wellbeing of their future generations. Having a registry would be good to future proof in case there are advances in cancer and genetic research, he said.

Recruitment to the study was voluntary with only 148 responses. Most were either a Mururoa veteran or a descendant of a Mururoa veteran. Most veterans are aged between 65 and 74, while their children are between 35 and 44 years old.

Mururoa Nuclear Veterans Group president Gavin Smith said his group welcomed the recommendation of a registry of Mururoa veterans and their descendants for potential testing.

"Our mission is to have the descendants of all veterans of nuclear and chemical exposure being catered for under the auspices of New Zealand Veterans Affairs, if they have medical implications arising out of their service."

He said he was waiting on the Minister of Defence to get back to him about the study and hoped to gain funding for further studies which could be more widely publicised and attract more veterans and their families.

He is determined to see a wider study soon before time runs out - with many of the veterans nearing retirement and heading into their late 70's.

"As long as I have breath in my lungs," he hoped to gain the support needed to prove whether his grandchildren would pick up cancer linked to their radiation exposure.

McBride said the need for health support was frequently reported by study participants, physical issues and mobility being specifically mentioned, along with the need for health and medical screening and 'checks', which also included family.

There is government support available for these veterans however, only 21 of the veterans in the study and three of their descendants are receiving support, 77 percent are not.

The Grapple veterans do have their own support group, the New Zealand Nuclear Test Veterans Association, whose view is that no further testing of veterans is desirable. This may account for the low numbers participating in the study.

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