More than 1,000 veterans, including 70 Scots, have been battling for permission to launch claims for compensation for about two years.
They blame ill-health – including cancer, fertility problems, leukaemia, heart disease and cataracts – on their involvement in British nuclear tests in the Pacific between 1952 and 1958.
The veterans were told the cases were time-barred and that claims should have been made within three years.
However, campaigners said they did not have sufficient proof that their illness was linked to the tests until medical research was published in 2007.
Although yesterday’s judgment blocks most claims, a certain number can still proceed because of an earlier legal ruling.
The veterans took their fight to the Supreme Court – the highest court in the UK – in November after battles in the High Court and the Court of Appeal.
In 2009, ten “lead” claimants won the first round when a High Court judge said their claims could go ahead.
But the MoD appealed and, in 2010, a Court of Appeal ruling blocked nine of the ten lead claims, saying they were “statute-barred” because they were made too late. The challenge against that decision was rejected yesterday by Supreme Court justices, by a four-to-three majority.
The Supreme Court said the appeal judges were right to block the group of nine, but the tenth could still proceed. Cases that will be able to proceed could be in the hundreds.
Veterans’ relatives said they were disappointed and called on ministers to step in.
“The government wouldn’t lose one vote by compensating the British nuclear test veterans – in fact they’d win a lot,” said Rose Clark, 71, of Romford, east London, whose husband Michael – a former soldier – died in 1992 aged 51 after contracting cancer.
She added: “My husband was on Christmas Island and witnessed five tests. He used to say he was so close he could see the skeletons of the people standing on the beach.
“He was 19 then. We didn’t think about it. But now I have no doubt that his cancer was caused by what he was exposed to.”
The MoD acknowledged a “debt of gratitude”, but denied negligence. A spokesman said: “All the justices recognised that the veterans would face great difficulty proving a causal link between illnesses suffered and attendance at the tests.
“The Supreme Court described the claims as having no reasonable prospect of success.”
Christina McKelvie, SNP MSP for Hamilton, Larkhall and Stonehouse who raised the veterans’ plight in the Scottish Parliament last November, said: “This is a very disappointing result, all the more so because the decision appears to have gone against the veterans on a technicality relating to the timing of the action.
“This decision leaves the UK as one of the last countries in the world which has not compensated its nuclear test veterans. New Zealand, the United States, Australia, France and Russia have all acknowledged their debt to their service veterans.”
Sapper told to cover his eyes and turn away
When Ken McGinley was a 19-year-old sapper serving with the Royal Engineers, he was ordered to cover his eyes with his hands and turn his back while Grapple Y, Britain’s biggest ever nuclear bomb, was detonated off Christmas Island in the Pacific.
Within days, the teenager lost the use of his right leg and a few months after returning home, having witnessed five nuclear bombs detonated, he suffered an internal haemorrhage and a skin disorder. He also developed polycythemia, a rare blood disease, and later found he was infertile.
Mr McGinley, 73, from Johnstone, near Paisley, who founded the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association, described yesterday’s decision as “disappointing” and “undemocratic”.
“What we’ve seen today in this so-called democratic country is the Ministry of Defence managing to squirm through a loophole.
“The court made a decision which I think is very undemocratic. Our fight is not about money. We want an acknowledgement of what we went through and the Westminster government should issue an apology.”