The service of veterans exposed to British atomic testing off the coast of Western Australia in the 1950s is to be recognised in the federal budget on Tuesday.
On Sunday Canning MP Andrew Hastie announced $133 million would be spent giving the men who served in the Montebello Islands, where three nuclear weapons tests took place in 1952 and 1956, access to Department of Veterans Affairs gold cards.
Mr Hastie said the gold cards, which entitled the veterans to free public and private health care, were an acknowledgment the men had served in dangerous circumstances.
“It says to them that the Australian government, on behalf of the Australian people, care about them and are going to see their responsibility to care for them through,” he said.
“For these men it is recognition they did serve in hazardous conditions, that they were exposed to nuclear radiation after atomic testing, so for them it means a lot, especially since quite a few of them have suffered from cancer.”
Only 51 of the 89 servicemen who were conscripted to assist with the atomic tests are still alive.
Half of those who have since died succumbed to cancer.
Bevan Pearce, now from Meadow Springs, was a national service conscript who witnessed a 1956 atomic test.
He said the gold cards would come as a relief for many of his ship mates.
“The incidence of cancer is enormous and to think we’ve got a gold card and we can stop worrying about the expenses of medical bills and all the benefits a gold card gives you is what we’ve been praying for for a long, long time,” Mr Pearce said.
“The fact we’ve got it is fantastic. Didn't think it would happen, but you should never say never and we didn’t say never and as a result we’ve got it and its fantastic news.”
Many of the veterans said they had not been told of the dangers of nuclear radiation and were not issued protective gear.
“We got up there and didn’t even know what was happening, all we knew is that something big was happening so we got out on the upper deck and the count down came down,” Australian Ex-Services Atomic Survivors Association secretary Jim Marlow said.
“We were told to turn our backs, so we turned our backs and there was a blinding flash and a push of wind and a whole lot of noise and we turned back again and saw the smoke going up.”
Mr Marlow said he was back working in the ship 10 minutes after the blast.
He said the survivors association had been lobbying for recognition for more than a decade.