Veterans of Britain’s nuclear bomb tests in Australia have no evidence to prove their health problems were caused by the radioactive blasts, a London court has heard.

Lawyers for the British government’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) told the High Court that claims about how the veterans had suffered a variety of illnesses since the tests more than 50 years ago were not backed up by solid medical evidence.

More than 800 veterans have gone to the High Court in the hope they will be given the go-ahead to sue the MoD for compensation because it was allegedly negligent for allowing them to be exposed to radiation during the tests between 1952 and 1958.

Many claim to have suffered a variety of illnesses from cancer to skin defects and fertility problems.

But the MoD’s barrister Charles Gibson, QC, told the court that while the veterans were owed a “debt of gratitude” for their service, they had nothing to prove their exposure to radiation from the bomb blasts caused their health problems.

“These claimants (veterans) have alleged that they have obtained evidence … to prove each of the injuries was caused or materially contributed to by low dose radiation,” he said.

“But we submit … that the evidence they have deployed in support of the individual cases doesn’t come remotely close to proving causation.

“We submit that none of the cases can properly proceed.”

The veterans from Britain, New Zealand and Fiji claim they were used as guinea pigs during the tests so the British government could study the effects of radiation fallout.

About 25,000 servicemen from Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Fiji took part in the tests, which started in 1952 on the Montebello Islands off the West Australian coast.

More tests were held at Emu Field and Maralinga in South Australia as well as on Christmas Island (now Kiritimati) and Malden Island in the Pacific Ocean.

Gibson rejected claims the veterans were deliberately exposed to radiation fallout, saying such allegations were an attack on the scientists and public servants who designed and implemented the tests and who were also present at the blasts.

He also noted that an Australian royal commission held in the mid 1980s into the tests at Maralinga had heard evidence that at no time were servicemen used as guinea pigs.

Instead, mice, goats and rabbits as well as manikins dressed as men were used to test the effects of the blasts.

“No personnel were treated as guinea pigs,” he said.

“The royal commission found that men weren’t themselves target response items.”

If the High Court decides to allow the veterans to sue, the MoD faces having to pay out millions of dollars in compensation.

The MoD argues the veterans should not be allowed to sue, partly because too much time has passed since the tests were carried out.

The case continues.