Kirotomi didn’t realise it at the time, but it was a very hard rain. Soon afterwards, her hair started falling out when she combed it. And bright red burns grew across her scalp and her face.
The rain had fallen from Britain’s biggest mushroom cloud. The cloud had been made by a massive three-megaton blast from a nuclear test – codenamed Grapple Y – over the Pacific near Christmas Island on April 28, 1958.
Now aged 73, Kirotomi is still scarred. “The burn mark remains on my face today,” she said. According to experts, there is a risk that it could turn cancerous.
“My face was worst affected because I was looking up at the black cloud from the blast, which was directly above us when the light shower fell,” she recalled.
Along with 300 other former Christmas Island residents, Kirotomi is now trying to win justice from the European parliament. She has made a submission to the petitions committee accusing the British government of breaking the law by failing to protect her heath.
Her petition alleges that she was taken off the island at 3am on the morning of the Grapple Y explosion. Along with fellow islanders, she was shown cartoon films below deck on a British military vessel.
After the explosion, Kirotomi was invited to come up on deck to see the mushroom cloud. Although the crew were wearing protective clothing over their heads, she was in her everyday clothes when the rain fell.
Her petition alleges the British government was aware of the risks of fallout in 1958, as it proposed a 400-mile danger zone around Christmas Island. Declassified government documents from the time stated that radioactivity washed out by rain could cause “very hazardous contamination”.
But islanders were not warned of the dangers or evacuated to a safe place. The British government tried to pretend they didn’t exist, the petition claims.
“Neither now nor at any time in the past has this desolate atoll had any indigenous population,” said a briefing for the British Mission to the United Nations in New York.
Kirotomi is being represented by Ian Anderson, a Scottish lawyer based in New York with experience of nuclear cases. He argues that the British government has a duty under a 1996 directive (pdf) from Euratom – the EU’s nuclear agency – to care for the people of Christmas Island, which was a British colony until 1979.
“The UK prefers not to deal with the long-term effects of radiation exposure, especially where it involves civilian populations for which it was responsible,” Anderson told the Sunday Herald.
Kirotomi’s petition is being strongly resisted by the British government. Islanders were mustered aboard ships for their own safety, insisted Bill Jones, a senior official with the UK Permanent Representation to the EU in Brussels.
The ships were anchored 45 kilometres upwind of Grapple Y, where the risk of contamination was “highly unlikely”, he claimed. Onboard radiation monitoring instruments did not detect any excess radiation.
No studies of the islanders’ health had been carried out, he said, “since there is no evidence to suggest they may have been exposed to raised radiation levels”.
Jones added: “The UK nuclear weapons trials were planned with meticulous care, with very careful attention paid to the safety of the participants and the local indigenous population.”
Kirotomi has won some support, however, from a leading expert on the health effects of nuclear tests.
“It was known from the first atomic test in 1945 that radioactive rain was likely to fall within hours of the detonations,” said Sue Roff of Dundee University Medical School.
“There is archival evidence that rain fell after the tests at Christmas Island similar to the ‘black rain’ after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs.”