Historians to explore the life stories of British nuclear test veterans


Historians at the University of South Wales (USW) and the University of Liverpool have been awarded £250,000 in Government funding for a study into British nuclear test veterans, a ‘forgotten community’ of former servicemen who took part in British nuclear test operations.

Dr Chris Hill, lecturer and researcher in History at USW, Dr Jon Hogg, senior lecturer in 20th Century British History at the University of Liverpool, and Dr Fiona Bowler, postdoctoral researcher at USW, will conduct and record around 40 ‘life story’ audio biographies with veterans around the UK, to investigate and recognise the complex role that test participation played in veterans’ lives.

The two-year project, funded by the Office for Veterans’ Affairs within the UK Cabinet Office, is part of a package of recognition for nuclear test veterans, announced following the introduction of the Nuclear Test Medal in November last year.

An Oral History of British Nuclear Test Veterans also seeks to generate wider public recognition for nuclear veterans’ service, and to understand what might be learned from nuclear veterans for the benefit of other former servicemen.

Dr CHRIS HILL - Nuclear_test_veterans_research_projectThe team of academics aim to interview veterans across the full range of test experiences: from Operation Hurricane in October 1952 to joint atmospheric tests with the US in 1962; from the detonation of hydrogen bombs to ‘minor trials’; from the test sites of South and Western Australia to those of Malden and Christmas Island in the Pacific.

Through a partnership with National Life Stories, these interviews will then be archived and made publicly available by the British Library, which is home to the British Library Sound Archive, one of the leading repositories for recorded sound in the world.

They will also feed into a documentary film, educational resources and touring engagement events, all of which are designed to promote awareness of nuclear test veteran history: among the public, in schools and in communities. The film will be led by Sasha Snow, an award-winning filmmaker who lectures at USW.

Dr Chris Hill, who has expertise in cultural and environmental aspects of nuclear history, said: “This project provides a unique opportunity to ensure that nuclear veterans’ perspectives and voices become an integral part of British nuclear history, as well as the history of the Cold War more widely.”

Dr Jon Hogg added: “Most of these veterans are now in their 80s, and they tend to look back on their service as the defining moment in their personal and professional lives. This crucial and timely project will help ensure that the legacy of the nuclear test veterans is not forgotten.”

Dr Fiona Bowler, the granddaughter of nuclear test veteran Gerard Bowler, recently completed a PhD on Britain’s nuclear testing community at the University of Southampton and is a Visiting Fellow at the institution. She said: “This project will preserve the memories of Britain’s nuclear test veterans for future generations, and bring their experiences to life through a series of public engagement events. We hope to amplify the voices of the community by creating an open access archive and support veterans in their longstanding struggle to receive recognition for their service.”

Mary Stewart, the British Library’s Lead Curator of Oral History and Director of National Life Stories commented: “I am delighted that this important partnership will add 40 in-depth life story interviews to the British Library oral history collection, providing researchers now and in the future unparalleled insights into how veterans’ test experiences affected them throughout their lives.”

This research also aims to help policymakers to better appreciate the long-term and psychological risks that can arise from perceived exposure to manmade sources of radiation. As well as benefiting nuclear test veterans, this work will lay the foundations for research into other cohorts of veterans who believe they may have been exposed to toxic contaminants in the course of service. 

The project has been endorsed by the major nuclear test veterans’ organisations, LABRATS (the Legacy of Atomic Bomb Recognition for Atomic Test Survivors) and the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association (BNTVA). Alan Owen, founder of LABRATS, described the project as “essential to ensure education and awareness of the testing programme for future generations.”

Visit the project website for more information.