British Nuclear Test Veterans: The complexities of identity, health and wellbeing, and the ageing process

Between 1952-1958, the UK conducted 21 atmospheric nuclear tests in Australia and South Pacific, involving ~22,000 members of the British Armed Forces. Since then a British Nuclear Test Veteran (BNTV) community has formed, composed of nuclear test participants and their families and friends.

What were the aims and objectives of this study?

The primary aim of this study is to understand the mechanisms by which cultural, physical and/or leisure activities may help and contribute to improving the health and wellbeing of the BNTV community.

The objectives are as follows:

• To understand what it means to identify as a BNTV and to be part of the BNTV community.
• To identify any health and wellbeing issues within the BNTV community.
• To identify cultural, physical/leisure activities that address and alleviate these health and wellbeing issues.

Why was this study performed?

It is known that among older people, the percentage of those living with poor wellbeing and quality of life has risen. Furthermore, older adults have a higher risk of becoming disengaged from society and community and experiencing loneliness and social isolation. Physical activity and the arts can provide a wealth of physical, mental and social benefits, including improving self-confidence, morale, social cohesion, depression and alleviating feelings of loneliness and social isolation. Thus, it has been suggested that physical and leisure activities may address the health and wellbeing issues of older people.

However, research on ageing veterans is limited, but research on BNTVs as a specific ageing population group is sparse. In addition, there are no published studies examining the impact of nuclear testing experience on wellbeing and identity within the BNTV community. Therefore, the nuances of ageing for this unique community and the interventions required to improve wellbeing have not been fully investigated.

What did the research involve?

The key qualitative method used in this study is the life history interview. This allows people to express their own views and feelings about key community and personal topics which are of importance to them. This study examined the lives and experiences of 29 members of the British Nuclear Test Veteran (BNTV) community using life history interviews.

Our approach is to listen to peoples’ personal stories and to identify actions that may be taken by both individuals and the community to address issues that affect their health and wellbeing. The examination of ‘big’ stories reflects the retrospect on specific life changing events. The ‘small’ stories reveal the mundane everyday interactions that are often overlooked.

How will the findings of this study be shared?

The findings of this study will be peer reviewed and published in the academic literature. Additionally, the findings will be expressed using creative non-fiction (CNF).

CNF will be used to represent the themes and experiences through 3 stories for a Book of Life. CNF is story creation grounded within the data but using fictitious conventions (metaphors, narration in the 1st/3rd person, imagery and character creation). Therefore, the researcher does not imagine or make up the story. Instead, it is based on systematically collected data and occurrences during the data collection process.

The 3 CNF stories within this book of life will be made up of 19 life history ‘monologues’ constructed from the interview transcripts with the BNTVs and their families. Therefore, they capture the experiences, feelings, thoughts and real words taken from these interviews but as an amalgamation of all individuals involved. In so doing, these creative stories reflect the common themes (e.g. identity, ageing, loneliness, engagement in activities), significant events and also the mundanity of everyday life.

Do you have any preliminary results?

The BNTV’s experiences are profound, yet health effects of radiation dominate the discourse. The BNTV community are concerned about biological/hereditary damage following potential exposure to radiation and require greater access to health and social care provisions.

Researcher Amy Prescott supervised by Professor Louise Mansfield, Dr Alistair John and RDA Dr Rebecca Hings