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Radiation exposure and heritable genetic effects

Our study, a 'Genetic and Cytogenetic Assessment of British Nuclear Test Veterans and their Families' is seeking to understand 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.

The study is designed to ask if there is any:

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


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.

Meet the Principal Investigator(s) for the project

Dr Rhona Anderson
Dr Rhona Anderson - Qualifications: FHEA, Brunel University London PhD, Brunel University London MSc, University of Aberdeen BSc (Hons), University of Strathclyde Professional Qualification Certified Clinical Cytogeneticist (ACCCC) Appointments  2019: Reader in Radiation Biology, Brunel University London, UK 2016: Senior Lecturer in Biomedical Sciences, Brunel University London, UK 2005: Lecturer in Biomedical Sciences, Brunel University London, UK 1996 - 2005: Research Associate, MRC Radiation and Genome Stability Unit, Harwell, UK

Related Research Group(s)


Genome Engineering and Maintenance - Diverse research network focused on molecular, cellular, organismal and computational aspects of genome biology.

Partnering with confidence

Organisations interested in our research can partner with us with confidence backed by an external and independent benchmark: The Knowledge Exchange Framework. Read more.

Project last modified 21/11/2023