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Global Ethics Corner: The Health Legacy of Nuclear Test Veterans

May 8, 2009

Nuclear weapons development reflected the immediacy and intensity of the Cold War and of foes with nuclear forces. The shockwaves rumble on.

Recently in London's High Court, participants in Britain's testing program argued that health was damaged by radiation.

Veterans claimed that they inhaled radiation, received scant training, ate contaminated fish, swam in radioactive water, and had inadequate equipment. Others received deliberate doses for scientific purposes.

While cancer is tangible, causation is difficult to prove and is complicated by the passage of time where other exposures or personal habits, such as smoking, intervene.

There is a moral dilemma: Should a government pursue a proactive approach, presuming their responsibility, and compensate veterans? Or should this ethical duty be subservient to the law and to proven fault?

U.S. provisions are the most comprehensive and presumptive. In France a scheme is only proposed. In Canada compensation has not provided a resolution, as litigation continues. In Britain claims remain dependent on the legal process.

What do you think?

Should governments provide the moral initiative or should a judge resolve this responsibility? If a court decides, should claims be dependent on existing legislation, national security, or a state's ability to pay?

Adapted from "Fallout, Denials, and Trials: Recognizing the Health Legacy of Nuclear Test Veterans," by David Willcox.

Postscript: On June 5, 2009, the British nuclear test veterans won the right to sue the U.K. government for compensation. See "Nuclear Test Veterans Can Sue MoD," BBC News, June 5, 2009.

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