LONDON (Reuters) - The British government on Tuesday rejected a proposal to set up a benevolent fund for thousands of veterans of the country's nuclear weapons testing programme who say their health was damaged by exposure to radiation in the 1950s and 1960s.
It also brushed off calls for Prime Minister David Cameron to pay formal tribute to the role they played in helping Britain develop a nuclear deterrent at a time when the effects of radiation were less well understood.
"The argument for a 25 million-pound benevolent fund to compensate veterans and family members affected by ionising radiation ... is flawed," Anna Soubry, a junior minister in the Ministry of Defence, told parliament during a debate on the issue.
More than 20,000 British troops took part in a nuclear testing programme in Australia and the South Pacific at the height of the Cold War during which many were exposed to high levels of radiation without protective clothing.
Decades later, campaigners say that only around 3,000 are still alive and the veterans and their descendants have developed a range of health problems, including different types of cancer, as a direct result of their military service.
John Baron, a lawmaker from Cameron's Conservative party, has helped lead a campaign aimed at setting up a government fund to help veterans with care and treatment costs and getting the prime minister to officially thank them for their contribution.
"There is a legacy from the dawn of our nuclear deterrent that has yet to be fully recognised, a debt of gratitude that has yet to be fully acknowledged," Baron told the same debate, which he organised.
"If the government continues to fail to do so, I suggest it not only fails our veterans but it fails their descendants and it fails to lift the veil of shame that almost uniquely hangs over this country."
Creating such a fund would not signify an admission of guilt or legal liability, he added.
But while Soubry said she recognised the "huge debt of gratitude" Britain owed to the veterans, she said the government opposed the fund idea, that Cameron had no plans to formally thank the veterans, and that the government rejected any link between veterans' health problems and their military service.
"I really do take issue with the idea that somehow we are being shameful or in any way wrong in our attitude to our nuclear test veterans," she said, saying they were entitled to seek compensation under an existing war pensions scheme.
Editing by Robin Pomeroy