Exposure Worry: The Psychological Impact of Perceived Ionizing Radiation Exposure in British Nuclear Test Veterans.

Reference:  Collett, G., Young, W.R., Martin, W. and Anderson, R. (2021). Exposure Worry: The Psychological Impact of Perceived Ionizing Radiation Exposure in British Nuclear Test Veterans. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 18(22), 12188



Background to research

Increased psychological distress has been found in populations affected by nuclear power plant accidents such as Chernobyl and Fukushima. By contrast, a relatively under-examined population are aged veterans of the British nuclear testing programme, with reports highlighting that anxiety might be a concern.

What did the research involve?

The research involved a multiple method (quantitative and qualitative) approach to gather information. Firstly, the researchers invited participants to complete the Geriatric Anxiety Inventory (Short-Form) scale. This is a validated screening tool to detect clinical levels of anxiety in older adults. A total of 89 British nuclear test veterans completed this scale.

The researchers then conducted in-depth interviews with 19 British nuclear test veterans to examine worry and the broader psychological impact of their experience. All interviews were audio recorded and transcribed. The transcriptions were subsequently analysed to identify common themes across the data.

What were the research questions?

The researchers asked, how common is clinically relevant anxiety in a sample of British nuclear test veterans? The researchers then explored in more detail the extent of worry and the broader psychological impact of being involved in the British nuclear weapons testing programme.

What did we find?

30 (33.7%) of the British nuclear test veteran sample met the criteria for clinically relevant anxiety, which is higher than the level of anxiety in older (non-military) adults published elsewhere using the same scale. Similar observations were made regarding the mean scores.

The interviews indicated that the psychological impact of the nuclear testing programme was mixed. Three themes were identified across the interviews:

The first theme described how worry about their own health was not particularly relevant but worry about their grandchildren’s health was certainly relevant to a few participants. Some participants also described a sense of responsibility for their family’s health which was negatively expressed as guilt.

The second theme described how some participants felt angry and frustrated at the government due to a perceived lack of recognition for potential negligence and deception.

The third theme described how certain life events, such as their descendants’ health development and the veteran’s involvement in veteran associations, influenced the potential psychological impact.

How did the researchers interpret their results?

The high levels of anxiety might be partly explained by worry about their grandchildren’s health but could also be explained by veteran issues unrelated to ionizing radiation exposure.

Separate to this, the sense of responsibility and guilt should be recognised, especially in those whose family members have health conditions.

The need for transparency and accountability when addressing the potential impact in similar scenarios is highlighted to avoid causing anger.

Who did this research?

Researchers in CHRC.

This work was, in part, supported by the Nuclear Community Charity Fund (NCCF) through funds received by The Armed Forces Covenant Fund Trust under the Aged Veterans Fund Grant AVF16 and Brunel University London.

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Key Messages

Clinically relevant anxiety is relatively high in this sample of British nuclear test veterans.

The experience of worry and broader psychological impact was mixed.

Worry was not a concern to all participants.

Generally, the participants were more worried about their descendants' health than their own health.

There was also evidence of anger and guilt.

The potential psychological impact appeared to be related to key life events.


Links to the research paper

This is a peer-reviewed study meaning that other scientists have reviewed this work before the authors published it in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health in 2021.