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CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - Canada said on Tuesday it would spend up to C$24 million ($22.4 million) compensating veterans forced to be exposed to Cold War-era nuclear blasts but never recognized for their sacrifices.
The recognition of Canada's so-called atomic veterans, which comes days before an expected election call, also extends to military personnel who decontaminated an Ontario nuclear plant in the 1950s after two reactor accidents.
The president of the association that has been fighting for official and financial acknowledgment for decades, said she may accept the C$24,000 settlement being offered on behalf of her husband, who died 15 years ago, but stressed that it did not nearly make up for her loss.
Defence Minister Peter MacKay said as many as 1,000 veterans, or their estates, could be entitled to payments. He said in Calgary the move was years in the making.
"We simply felt that now was the time to deliver on this commitment to see a form of financial recognition, but more importantly public acknowledgment, of the tremendous contribution that atomic veterans made to the security of our country, and made with, really, little choice," MacKay told reporters.
"They were given an order, which they obeyed valiantly."
Earlier this year, some of the veterans launched a class-action lawsuit against Ottawa, saying many had suffered and died from the effects of radiation.
From the end of World War Two until 1958, Canada's military took part in nuclear weapons tests in Nevada, the South Pacific and Australia, with personnel exposed to blasts wearing little or no protection in the top-secret missions.
They were also deployed to help with emergency decontamination of the Chalk River, Ontario, nuclear plant following major reactor accidents in 1952 and 1958.
In 2006, former Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor ordered a report to find out how many Canadians participated in the tests and cleanups without ever being recognized.
"So we simply wanted to see that this was done, that an election or anything else would not pre-empt the delivery of this commitment," MacKay said.
Joan Robichaud's husband participated in nuclear testing in Nevada in August 1957, and died 15 years ago, having suffered with ailments she said were related to radiation exposure.
"I probably would accept the C$24,000, but I still don't feel it's enough for what the families have gone through," said Robichaud, who is president of the Canadian Atomic Veterans Association.
She pointed out that U.S. atomic veterans have been offered $75,000.
Association spokesman and atomic veteran Jim Huntley, 69, said the members would now try to weigh if they should continue the class action.
Editing by Rob Wilson