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NZ’s nuclear jubilee

New Zealand at first welcomed the “atomic age”, but radioactive fallout changed all that.

This month marks 25 years since New Zealand legislated a nuclear-free zone that prohibited nuclear weapons and warships in the country’s land, air and water. Although we never considered having nuclear weapons, New Zealand was once as excited as any nation about the dawning atomic age, with our own plans for uranium mines and nuclear power stations. After the American bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki contributed to the end of World War II, our Government revealed the role of a small group of New Zealand physicists on the Manhattan Project that developed the atom bomb. New Zealand, it said, should be “proud to know that some of her scientists… were at the forefront of this latest development”. Although the subsequent development of more bombs – the US began nuclear tests at Bikini Atoll in 1946 and the USSR tested its first nuclear bombs in 1949 – was greeted by the Listener then as “deeply depressing”, the promised “peaceful uses” of atomic energy were seen as positive.

When the UK wanted heavy water to use as a moderator in its nuclear power plants, it made an agreement with New Zealand to produce heavy water using geothermal energy from Wairakei. Prime Minister Sidney Holland said New Zealand would be making a “worthwhile and unique contribution not only to its own power resources, but also to the development of atomic energy, which, used for peaceful purposes, may well revolutionise the world’s industrial processes”. When uranium was found in the Buller Gorge in 1955, it was greeted as heralding a potential new export industry and a way to make nuclear power more affordable for New Zealand. It wasn’t anti-nuclear sentiment that led to the abandonment in 1979 of the Government-supported exploration and prospecting, after 24 years, but economics. The uranium was there, but not in sufficient quantities or concentrations to make extraction worthwhile.

An agreement New Zealand signed with the US in 1956 allowed for the provision of a half-price research reactor, along with uranium fuel to power it, but by the time the DSIR was ready for the reactor, the “half-price” offer had been withdrawn, and we were unwilling to pay full price. In the end, our only nuclear reactor – a gift under the US Atoms for Peace programme – was installed at the University of Canterbury’s School of Engineering in 1961. The sub-critical reactor – it had no critical mass of fuel to produce a chain reaction – was removed in 1981 after the university phased out its nuclear engineering course. In the 1950s and 60s, New Zealanders had become aware of the health risks posed by fallout from bomb testing, and the public began to be wary of the dangers posed, for example, by strontium contamination of milk: New Zealand’s welcome to the “atomic age” was radioactive fallout.

So by 1975, when New Zealand needed to make a decision on whether to meet the growing demand for electricity with a planned nuclear power station on the Kaipara Harbour, the promised atomic age had lost its allure. The Listener’s Boyce Richardson described nuclear reactors as now symbolising “an impersonal future world of computers, robots, explosive violence and uncontrollable technology, rather than the cornucopia overflowing with goods and pleasures that they once promised”. Opposition to nuclear testing in the Pacific had spread to nuclear power and most of the submissions to the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Nuclear Power Generation in New Zealand were opposed. Even so, it was economics more than anti-nuclear sentiment that led to New Zealand’s rejection of nuclear power – the discovery of the Maui natural gas field in offshore Taranaki meant the country now had sufficient indigenous resources to meet electricity needs until the end of the century.

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Rebecca Priestley’s book on New Zealand’s nuclear history, Mad on Radium: New Zealand in the Atomic Age, will be published by Auckland University Press this September.