No Risk Involved – The Ken McGinley Story: Survivor of a Nuclear Experiment

Book Reviews

Madhuri reflects on politics, science and sacrifice, while reviewing Ken McGinley and Eamonn P. O’Neill’s book that describes the events around the 1958 UK tests of atomic and hydrogen bombs involving 22,000 young soldiers.

No Risk Involved: The Ken McGinley Story: Survivor of a Nuclear ExperimentNo Risk Involved
The Ken McGinley Story: Survivor of a Nuclear Experiment

by Ken McGinley and Eamonn P. O’Neill
Mainstream Publishing, 1991, Edinburgh
192 pages

Perhaps the reason governments often seem to have such contempt for their own people is that deep down, the elected officials know that they themselves are idiots, venal and gross, who know nothing… and so how can they respect anyone who votes for them? Or, if they are not elected but, dictator-fashion, establish their own rule – their own necessary arrogance makes automatic idiots of their subjects.

Because surely governments turn against their own – North Korea, Myanmar, USA, Nazi Germany, Brazil, etc etc etc – the list does not end.

In 1958 the UK began a series of 21 tests of high-megaton atomic and hydrogen bombs – off the coast of Australia, and near Christmas Island, in the remote Pacific. A total of 22,000 young soldiers participated. They’d been told there was no risk involved; that the weapons would be detonated in the air and there would be no fallout. For the fit, rambunctious young men, it all seemed a lark – until shortly before the tests began, when intuition began kicking in and the whole island filled with dread.

This is the story of an innocent young man from the north who was pulled into the diabolical experiment. It details what he witnessed happening to others, and how his own health was ruined; and how he then became an activist against all things nuclear. It’s a simple story, well told, and it will raise the hairs all over your body with warning dread.

The government’s position was that nuclear weapons would end war for all time because everybody would be so afraid that nobody would attack anybody. These boys were doing their patriotic duty, on the cutting edge!

But the government in fact already knew at least the short-term effects of the weapons – they’d been in contact with the USA, which had already been testing them – and they knew what had happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In top-secret documents only dug out 30 years later, it’s obvious that they wanted to see the long-term effects of radiation on “stores, equipment, and men” – the men, “with and without protective clothing.” “Protective clothing,” in this case, meaning white cotton jumpsuits. Some got them, some didn’t.

So those lively young soldiers, so happy for a sunny break from post-war winter England, were guinea pigs.

The first blast freaked everybody out so much – your head filled completely with white light as your brain was being radiated – you could see right through your own arm, all the blood vessels and nerves – you felt the intense heat pass through your core, cooking you – you simply knew too that something unbelievably maleficent was occurring – that right then and there many went mad; some died within days. The rest went on eating fish from the lagoon, ingesting huge quantities of radioactive material.

Medical records were censored, leaving out details such as terrible rashes, sudden paralysis, splitting headaches. Strong men fell apart, were changed forever.

And for the rest of their lives the health of the survivors, of not just these tests but the USA and Soviet ones, went on deteriorating in painful and hideous ways.

The narrator, that ordinary, handsome, fun-loving Scots fellow, eventually, to his own surprise, went on to found an organization to try to get recompense from the British government. The government, predictably, did everything it could to get out of any responsibility – even after Ronald Reagan signed a bill guaranteeing pensions for the US test veterans.

Here’s the thing about radiation poisoning (and I was reminded of a harrowing book, The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women, by Kate Moore, about teenage girls who painted luminous watch dials in the USA during the early part of the 20th century. They were told there was no danger. They too died terrible lingering deaths and were denied compensation. Their teeth abscessed and fell out, bones dissolved with accompanying extreme pain, tumours sprouted – the same sad litany as happened to the soldiers. Many of the soldiers lived longer than those girls did; and went on to see their children born with birth defects; or were rendered sterile) – the contaminant is invisible. Unless you actually see fallout (and in the case of that first test on Christmas Island, they saw not fallout but just a pouring, heavy rain – a deadly rain, did they but know it…) it is invisible.

Humans, in our blindness, our poor five senses through which, we arrogantly imagine, we see the world – disbelieve in the invisible. If you can’t see it, taste it, smell it, hear it – it’s not there.

I can understand why it does seem weird – a thing that can kill you, that you cannot see? It sounds almost like voodoo, a superstitious spell. Because when we go into the Invisible we also encounter our own imaginations… always a pitfall – how to tell the difference between imagination and intuition? And so we flounder about, believing in viruses and radiation and bacteria, or not, as the moment and our own dispositions take us.

Meditation is certainly helpful – becoming very alert to your own body and its own mysterious sensings – different than the mind; and possessed of (at least) a sixth sense.

And science is so important – science, which can see some of the invisible – but you can’t simply always trust what people tell you. Governments said the tests were safe… I was recently assured a certain huge barking dog was safe… and he bit me anyway. Trust, trust, trust, your own body and its intuitings; your own heart and what it knows it will enjoy… or not enjoy.

Those poor soldiers had already gone through a painful, unpleasant, violent training to become military fodder. Each of them had already had his terrible doubts about the course his life was taking. But peer pressure is one of the strongest forces in our lives; and that thing called ‘honour,’ which can often be equated with ‘attempts not to feel shame,’ can entice people to do things destructive to self and others.

The organization Ken McGinley started went on to connect with other such organizations worldwide, calling for a ban on nuclear weapons and testing. McGinley, though in constant health difficulties, travelled widely for this.

The writing is excellent – clear, engaging, informed. We really like this guy, and we really hate what happened to him.

Personally, I absolutely mistrust nuclear reactors, power plants, submarines, etc – for the simple reason that they are created and managed by human beings, and are therefore imperfect, fallible, and destined to run into glitches and disasters. To imagine otherwise is preposterous – and so history shows. I am certain other energy sources can be discovered and used. I’m astonished that anyone ever thought nuclear power plants were a good idea.

The last I heard, the government continues to dodge and feint, successfully avoiding paying out to these men who have suffered so much for doing their ‘duty.’

The book is clear, strong, shocking – and well worth the read.

After I wrote this, I sat down to meditate for 20 minutes. And suddenly I saw this: My father was a scientist. He wanted me to be a scientist. He greatly admired Madame Curie. But Madame Curie died of radiation poisoning! Why would my father wish that on me? …Because somehow in my own inner world this was the conclusion: my father was ready for me to sacrifice myself and be poisoned!

My dad told us how in his lab he sucked poisonous chemicals through a pipette – knowing how to stop before it reached his mouth. I felt dubious then; I feel dubious now. Have I been unconsciously keeping solidarity with my dad though? The world lobs so many poisons at us, it is difficult to avoid them. I’ve met my share and maybe more – mercury poisoning, paint-fume poisoning, birth control pill poisoning, cleaning products, mosquito coils… it’s been a theme.

Many scientists have experimented on themselves – and many died or were injured. This was their choice; and presumably the excitement of experimentation and the possible rewards made the risk seem worth taking.

But sacrifice is something else… and when leaders sacrifice others for their own ideas or ambitions, even in the name of some greater good… those soldiers, for example – the picture gets much, much darker. What stories did those so-called leaders tell themselves? (Why didn’t they watch the bomb explode themselves, if they were so curious? And not get innocent people involved in it?)

I have heard Osho say, “There is no humanity as such; there are only individual human beings.” *

My father himself sacrificed his ambitions, his life’s purpose, for his 7 children. Perhaps he could only wish sacrifice for me? Because when we sacrifice, we are within that sea of hurt radiating out around us in all directions… I heard Osho say that we should never sacrifice – because when we sacrifice, we cannot forgive and we cannot forget.

For sacrifice is not the same as generosity. Generosity is when you give because you have overflow.

Sacrifice is, for me, a concept that defies understanding. In Denmark I once visited a pre-history museum, in which was an exhibit of things those long-ago people had thrown into bogs as sacrifices: wooden chestsful of butter! Long sheaves of human hair! Carven tools! …I don’t get the concept. Why not live with all that we have, in creativity and celebration? Let that be our challenge – how to celebrate more, create more comfort and beauty; while allowing the natural world its own ways.

People sacrifice, I think, because they don’t know what they have – life – they don’t know the value of it. They’ve been taught that sacrifice is virtuous and laudable. Religions say this; to keep people humble and obedient (so that the priests and potentates can take all the goodies they want for themselves – and feel powerful). God sacrificing his only begotten son, and all that… a concept that far pre-dates the Jesus myth, by the way – it is pre-historical. And, like I say, it never made the slightest bit of sense to me.

We could say that Osho coming out and speaking to us when he was very ill and his body was failing; was sacrificing himself. That would be so wrong. He was not putting a part of himself against another part. He was not suffering and then building up resentment. He was not that small. He was a talking-to-us; he was one with the joy of communing with us; his body was what it was; there was no bargain, no barter with god; everything was as it was, and the guiding force was ecstatic messaging. He did not blame us for his illness. He was not divided.

A sacrifice is absolutely a division: I value this thing I have, therefore I will deprive myself of it, and use my suffering as a bargain with god: “God, if I suffer and thus pay, will you give me or us something else we want.” Just a marketing mind, really.

If we knew what we had, we would live it – not throw it away, blindly. Or try to sell it to God.

Did the government think, “We are so rich in young men, let’s give a bunch of them away?” Right after a war which killed so many young men? Weird. This was cruel and it was blind. Those young men being made to witness the detonating bombs were used as objects, cynically. They had been tricked – they were not told what the consequences could be. And no greater good was served by their sacrifice. May the powers that be know this; may the knowledge eat into their bones like radiation does – so that such a thing is never done again.

* Quoted from The Psychology of the Esoteric, Ch 1, Q 1


Madhuri is a healer, artist, poet and author of several books, Mistakes on the Path being her latest memoir.


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