A split decision by nine European judges to reject two test-case actions means the campaign has nowhere obvious left to go. Some veterans say this is effectively the end, while others vow to fight on.
The two men involved in the action have consistently claimed that their lives were ruined by being forced to witness nuclear tests at Christmas Island in the Pacific in 1957, and that they were used as human guinea pigs. They had been hoping for compensation of up to pounds 100,000 each.
Edward Egan, 59, from Glasgow and Ken McGinley, from Paisley, were granted leave to take the Ministry of Defence to the Strasbourg court last year, claiming that the government had covered up vital documents which could have won them earlier compensation or a war pension. The veterans' full case has never been tested in the British courts, largely because of a lack of available evidence.
Yesterday Mr Egan said he was "bitterly disappointed" by the decision, adding that it would probably mark the end of his 38-year fight for recognition of his suffering. "It is not only the end of the road for me, it is the end of the road for the thousands of other people who were hoping that this would set a precedent," he said, speaking from home. He was too ill to travel to Strasbourg for yesterday's court hearing.
"If there was another place to take the case I would take it on further, but I don't think there is anywhere to go after this," he said. "It's the widows and the children I feel really sorry for."
Mr Egan and Mr McGinley were among about 22,000 British servicemen and 1,000 civilians who witnessed nuclear explosions in the South Pacific and Australia. At Christmas Island, where a total of six bombs were detonated, they say the servicemen were ordered to line up in the open, with no protection against the blast, which was only about 20 miles away.
"I was in hospital at the time, and they brought me out and told me to sit on the deck of the ship. I had no warning. I was just told I was going on an expedition and I would never see anything else like it in my life," said Mr Egan, who was then an 18-year-old naval rating. "That was certainly true. I've never seen anything like it, and I wouldn't wish it on anyone else. I remember seeing the blast every day, you couldn't forget it."
He said that exposure to the radiation had caused him a multitude of health problems, ranging from osteoporosis in his hips and back, the loss of a lung, and a heart attack he suffered when aged only 42. "The most tragic thing is that it goes right through my family. My daughter and granddaughter have been affected as well," said Mr Egan.
Mr McGinley, who was in Strasbourg yesterday, says the radiation from the tests left him sterile, and caused him arthritis, skin and kidney problems. He is chairman of the British Nuclear Test Veterans' Association, which was set up in 1983 to fight for compensation. The group alleges that witnesses were deliberately exposed to radiation to see how their bodies would react.
Peter Fletcher, vice-chairman of the association and a veteran of the very first test in 1952, admitted yesterday that they must now go "back to the drawing board". But he added: "I for one certainly won't give up."
Announcing yesterday's result, Judge Rudolf Bernhardt said that it had not been shown that any documents existed which could have proved the mens' case, while stressing that the court had no jurisdiction to consider allegations of lack of protection offered to the men during the tests. Four out of the nine judges sitting at the case, however, dissented from its findings. No reasons were given.
John Spellar, Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Defence, welcomed the ruling. "The documents which we have provided both before and during the court case clearly demonstrate that the great majority of servicemen present at the tests were in a safe position - too far from the nuclear detonations to receive any measurable radiation dose," he said.
Mr Egan, however, remains uncompromising. "I have this sickness, the government don't, and so they are not bothered," he said.