Genetic and Cytogenetic Assessment of British Nuclear Test Veterans and their Families


What is the aim of this study.

This study seeks to ask whether a heritable genetic legacy could exist due to historical participation in various military operations during the British nuclear testing programme in the 1950s and 60s.

Our genetic and cytogenetic study is designed to ask if there is any:

  • Chromosomal evidence of historical exposure to ionising radiation in British nuclear test veterans.
  • Chromosomal and/or DNA alterations in the children of British nuclear test veterans.

Why are we doing this?

The British Government undertook a series of atmospheric nuclear weapons tests at various sites in Australia and the South Pacific between 1952 and 1958. Associated with these tests was an experimental programme in which radioactivity was dispersed into the environment. This programme ended in 1963 although operations continued through to 1967. Additionally, UK personnel participated in a series of American tests based at Christmas Island in 1962. It is estimated that over 20,000 UK servicemen participated in at least one of these British and American tests.

An ongoing concern within the nuclear test community has been whether veterans of these programmes could have received sufficient radiation exposure to cause genetic damage in them. This concern extends to whether they might also have passed on genetic alterations to their children, thereby potentially affecting their family’s health. Genetic damage can increase the risk of developing various diseases such as cancer, however of the studies carried out to date, no clear link between participation at nuclear test sites and increased mortality (death) or cancer occurrence relative to control populations, has been found (Muirhead et al. 2004, Darby et al. 1988b, Darby et al. 1993, Kendall et al. 2004). Reports of an increased incidence of miscarriage and genetic disorders in children of nuclear test veterans are largely anecdotal.

This question of adverse health effects in the children of radiation-exposed parents remains outstanding. The consensus from international epidemiology (principally human population studies of Japanese A-bomb survivors) is that presently no conclusive evidence exists, yet this is tempered by some evidence from cellular and animal studies that support the presence of detrimental outcomes in offspring as a result of parental exposure to radiation. Accordingly further research is justified.

What can we learn from this study.

This study will determine whether the amount of chromosomal aberrations is similar or different between test veterans and control veteran groups. We can then use this data to provide important new information on the likelihood of any historical exposures.

Our study will also determine whether the amount of chromosome aberrations and DNA mutations in children is similar or different between test veteran and control veteran groups. This will provide important new information on the likelihood that any exposure in a test veteran parent could be associated with changes to the genome of their children.

Changes to the genome may:

  • have no effect on the health of the individual
  • have an effect which is clinically-recognised
  • increase the risk or likelihood of a clinical effect

What this study cannot tell us.

Our study will not provide any direct information that could be used to relate any medical condition in an individual or individual family to exposure to ionising radiation.

Why is this study important?

The outcomes of this study are important to members of the British and International test veteran communities. We anticipate our findings will enable an evidence-based evaluation of the potential risks to health. This will help to inform, educate and drive further directed research.

The knowledge gained will also contribute to improving our understanding about possible impacts on the future health of radiation-exposed populations more broadly.

What does this study involve.


Frequently Asked Questions
For questions and answers relating to the Genetic and Cytogenetic project...


Muirhead CR, Kendall GM, Darby SC, Doll R, Haylock RG, O’Hagan JA, Berridge GL, Phillipson MA, Hunter N. (2004) Epidemiological studies of UK test veterans: II. Mortality and cancer incidence. Journal of Radiological Protection 24(3):219-41. Doi:

Kendall, G M, Muirhead, C R, Darby, S C, Doll, R, Arnold, L, & O’Hagan, J A (2004). Epidemiological studies of UK test veterans: I General description. Journal of Radiological Protection, 24(3): 199-217. Doi:

Darby SC, Kendall GM, Fell TP, O’Hagan JA, Muirhead CR, Ennis JR, Ball AM,Dennis JA, Doll R. (1988) A summary of mortality and incidence of cancer in men from the United Kingdom who participated in the United Kingdom’s atmospheric nuclear weapon tests and experimental programmes. Br Med J (Clin Res Ed). 30; 296-332    doi:

Muirhead CR, Bingham D, Haylock RGE, et al.  (2003) Follow up of mortality and incidence of cancer 1952–98 in men from the UK who participated in the UK’s atmospheric nuclear weapon tests and experimental programmes. Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 60:165-172. doi: 10.1136/oem.60.3.165


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