Bombs and boffins

For a nuclear-free country, New Zealand has a surprisingly rich and interesting nuclear history

When I tell people I’m completing a history of science thesis on New Zealand’s nuclear history, the most common response is a dismissive snort that it must be a “very short thesis”. But from Ernest Rutherford’s pioneering work on the structure of the atom, to the plans for a heavy water plant at Wairakei and a nuclear power station at Kaipara, or the West Coast uranium boom in the 1950s, our nuclear history is anything but short, and like any thesis writer, I’m having trouble knowing when to stop. Until I started my thesis, I knew plenty about Rutherford, but had no idea that New Zealand ever flirted with uranium mining or nuclear power.

I grew up in the Cold War era of French Pacific bomb tests and American nuclear ship visits. In 1985—the year the Rainbow Warrior was bombed—I worked as a meteorological technician, next door to the Seismological Observatory in Kelburn, Wellington, where my best friend worked as a technician. While I was at the Meteorological Office, reading barometers and emptying rain-gauges, she had the much more exciting job of interpreting seismographs and accepting top secret transmissions from the seismic station at Rarotonga. Of course, before she could whisper “another bomb” to me over our public service morning tea, Warwick Smith, the chief seismologist, would announce the test to the Prime Minister’s office, which would contact other countries’ top officials and then release the information to the media.

“It was all cloak and dagger stuff for a while,” says Smith. “Then, in the final stages of testing, the French used to make announcements that in less than an hour they would be doing another test.”

The following year I began an earth sciences degree at Victoria University. To us students, Ronald Reagan was the enemy (or rather, one of them) and a poster of him in my student flat was captioned “We start bombing in five minutes”. Nuclear war was a tangible prospect and New Zealand’s nuclear-free status became a strong part of our identity. When I travelled through the United States after completing my degree, the only thing people knew about New Zealand (apart from the fact that it was connected by bridge to Australia) was that it was “nuclear free”.

I first considered writing about New Zealand’s nuclear history while working on a contract for GNS Science back in 1991. The Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) had just been carved up and reconstituted as 10 Crown Research Institutes, with the newly established Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences (they changed to GNS Science a few years ago) taking on most of the New Zealand Geological Survey, the DSIR Geophysics Division and the Institute of Nuclear Sciences. Although my degree was in earth sciences, I found the work of the nuclear sciences team fascinating, not least because of the tendency of taxi drivers to refer to the place as “the bomb factory”, and of locals to complain about the “nuclear reactor” they mistakenly thought was up on the hill. I also heard stories of farmers who’d see the word “nuclear” written on the GNS drill rig and order it off their property.

I began to wonder if there was any contradiction between New Zealand being so fiercely “nuclear free”, yet having a strong and vibrant nuclear research facility and a medical system that depended on nuclear technology. The more I delved into the subject the more I realised that little had been written about our nuclear and radiation history, and there were huge misconceptions out there. About the same time, my friend Steve Menzies lent the book Multiple Exposures: Chronicles of the Radiation Age, by Catherine Caulfield, and suggested there should be a book detailing New Zealand’s experience in the radiation age. Ten years and much cogitating later, I started my thesis and began researching and writing about New Zealand’s nuclear and radiation history.

Others have published on the subject in the meantime—Ross Galbreath wrote about the DSIR’s involvement in nuclear science in his 1998 book DSIR: Making Science Work for New Zealand, Andrew McEwan has written two books focusing on the work of the National Radiation Laboratory, and in 2006 retired diplomat Malcolm Templeton published Standing Upright Here: New Zealand in the Nuclear Age, which has an international relations perspective. But there are still a lot of stories to tell, and as I said, it’s sometimes hard to know where to stop.