Key Points:

Fifty years after they were deliberately positioned near a nuclear bomb blast, New Zealand servicemen are hoping key New Zealand scientific research will help them gain multi-million dollar compensation from the British Government.

The research - by Professor Al Rowland at Massey University's Institute of Molecular BioSciences - shows that the veterans, all of whom took part in Britain's Operation Grapple in the 1950s, had suffered genetic damage worse than that suffered by victims of the Chernobyl disaster.

But while those affected are excited by the findings and the potential they have to affect the servicemen's class action against the British Government, such reparations take time - the one thing ageing and often ailing servicemen do not have.

Talk to Roy Sefton, the 69-year-old head of the New Zealand Nuclear Test Veterans Association (NZNTVA), and you get a sense of the frustration felt by the passage of that time.

You also gain a feeling of the quiet determination that this is a fight which will carry on well past the time when there are no more servicemen left from the HMNZS Pukaki and HMNZS Rotoiti, or from the British and Australian vessels involved in Operation Grapple, when nine nuclear explosions took place in the Pacific between 1956-58.

Grapple, indeed. The servicemen have done nothing but grapple with governments - British, Australian and New Zealand - to gain recognition and then compensation for following orders which, to the casual observer, seem to be the height of callousness.

Naval ratings in ships near the bomb tests were positioned to see how they were affected.

Sefton, a crew member on Pukaki, was just 17 when he saw "... this massive flash. I had my eyes closed and goggles, dark goggles, hands over them and there before me lay the skeleton or the bones of my hands".

More than 50 years on, survivors say that no one wants to know how they were affected. Worse, governments seem to be playing the "time" card, delaying resolution until there are no more servicemen left; and, supposedly, no more issues.

Sefton, whose gentle and weary tone belies those who seek to paint the servicemen as money-hungry cheque-seekers, is himself an example of the frustrations involved.

A respected artist, he had to stop painting after what is euphemistically described as "severe arthritis" literally forced his hand.

"No one seems to know what it is," he says. "I have never been able to have it successfully diagnosed and the closest anyone has come is to call it severe arthritis. But the bottom line is that I have had to stop painting. In fact, I'm not much good for anything these days."

That is the nub of the delay in any settlement of the veterans' claims. Science still cannot absolutely and specifically determine that a cancer or similar complaint came from a particular incident more than 50 years ago.

Now, however, the veterans are armed with the research findings from Massey University cytogeneticist, Professor Al Rowland, who became involved in research partly funded by the NZNTVA and the New Zealand Government.

In a five-year study, using 50 veterans and painstakingly measuring them against a control group, matched perfectly for age, lifestyle and even smoking and drinking habits, the research tested genetic damage. They found that damage, expressed in chromosomal translocations, was almost 50 per cent higher than that found in people close to Chernobyl or the clean-up workers after the accident.

The research maintains that the veterans suffered genetic damage as a result of radiation. It has been hailed as world-leading and has been passed on to the British law firm co-ordinating the class action against the British government.

But, even though those findings seem conclusive, the wheels of government grind exceeding slow. Sefton is at pains to point out that the New Zealand Government - not the target of any court action by the servicemen - has made some advances in veterans' affairs overall and is taking submissions from interest groups, including the NZNTVA, on the re-writing of the War Pensions Act.

He still finds it ironic that the Government of the country which so proudly proclaims itself nuclear-free - because of the dangers - can so close its ears against people who, he says, have been affected by those very dangers.

He is troubled that Rowland's research is still in the Government's care while it seeks peer reviews and compares it to overseas research.

"I don't understand it," says Sefton. "The research has already had impeccable peer reviews and we found we could get such reviews done by reputable people and institutions within four or five weeks. I'd say the Government has had this for a year or more.

"Also, the research we did is leading the world - so what's the point of looking at what other people are doing?"

It might sound a small complaint, especially as the New Zealand Government is not in the gun for compensation. But it is an illustration of how time is against a group whose members are dying out; taking their issue with them.

The veterans in the UK are dying at the rate of 50 a year. The youngest of those who took part are now in their 70s, and it could be another five years before the veterans have their day in court; if at all.

But Sefton says: "There are strong feelings about this - not just here in New Zealand, but in Britain where there are a great many more servicemen and families affected. They will be the ones to keep this thing going.

"They will keep the pressure on the British Ministry of Defence. You know, Britain is in a tough spot with its power generation. They have to do up a lot of old nuclear-powered stations and build new ones - and they will not want a lot of old soldiers and sailors airing this dirty laundry and saying: 'Hey, this stuff is dangerous...'.

"The other thing we are achieving is that we are laying the ground for the future. With the type of warfare that is going on these days, more and more military personnel are going to find themselves in the same sort of situation we were. But at least they will have a path to follow."

Sefton means troops in theatres of action such as the Middle East where, for example, depleted uranium weapons are used. Shells with depleted uranium coatings are extremely dense and penetrative, making them highly effective armour-piercing weapons.

"But when the shells explode, the depleted uranium - that's what they call it but I can tell you there is very little depleted about it - vapourises and this dust settles on everything and everybody.

"The troops in those areas are supposed to haul vehicles hit by DU weapons away and bury them but all the pictures you see from the battle zones show that they have just been left there; kids play on the knocked-out vehicles and then friendly troops come along, stirring up the dust and ingesting and inhaling this very fine vapour which can cause all sorts of health problems."

There is no proof yet of depleted uranium causing health problems but suspicions are high, of course.

Sefton says the New Zealand servicemen want more care for widows, children and family of affected servicemen.

"We still believe the New Zealand Government has a duty of care, not so much with compensation, but with pensions or some form of financial assistance to widows and children," says Sefton.

The veterans also want to do more research - this time on the flow-on effects of their radiation-induced illness to their children. But it will cost $500,000 and Sefton says he doesn't know where that will come from.

"It isn't a lot of money, not when you consider what other things the government pays out for," says Sefton. But it would help establish more firmly the trail of ill health connected with the British bomb blasts of more than 50 years ago.

"That's the thing about research and government," says Sefton. "Even with the best research in the world, if the people on the other side of an issue have decided to take against you, there is always some technical issue or some finding that they can quibble with and use against you."

But the British court hearing for compensation won't start until next year, says Sefton. And it won't be a full inquiry. It will be a hearing to decide whether the court action can take place or whether the whole matter has exceeded its statute of limitations.

And so time ticks by.