Nuclear New Zealand: New Zealand's nuclear and radiation history to 1987
Thesis DisciplineHistory and Philosophy of Science
Degree GrantorUniversity of Canterbury
Degree NameDoctor of Philosophy
New Zealand has a paradoxical relationship with nuclear science. We are as proud of Ernest Rutherford, known as the father of nuclear science, as of our nuclear-free status. Early enthusiasm for radium and X-rays in the first half of the twentieth century and euphoria in the 1950s about the discovery of uranium in a West Coast road cutting was countered by outrage at French nuclear testing in the Pacific and protests against visits from American nuclear-powered warships.
New Zealand today has a strong nuclear-free identity – a result of the New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament and Arms Control Act of 1987 that prohibited nuclear weapons and nuclear warships in the country’s land, air and water – that can be traced back to the first protests against nuclear weapons in the 1940s. This thesis is based on the supposition that the “nuclear-free New Zealand” narrative is so strong and such a part of the national identity that it has largely eclipsed another story, the pre-1980s story of “nuclear New Zealand”. New Zealand’s early embracing of and enthusiasm for nuclear science and technology needs to be introduced into our national story. This thesis aims to discover and reveal that history: from the young New Zealand physicists seconded to work on the Manhattan Project; to the plans for a heavy water plant at Wairakei; prospecting for uranium on the West Coast of the South Island; plans for a nuclear power station on the Kaipara Harbour; and the thousands of scientists and medical professionals who have worked with nuclear technology. Put together, they provide a narrative history of nuclear New Zealand.
Between the “anti-nuclear” voices, already well told in many histories of nuclear-free New Zealand, and the “pro-nuclear” voices revealed in this thesis, options were considered and decisions made. This thesis shows that the people with decision-making power tended to make practical decisions based on economics and national interest when it came to deciding whether or not to adopt a certain piece of nuclear technology or whether or not to participate in projects or ventures with international agencies. This eventually led to a nuclear-free policy – focused on weapons, nuclear-powered ships and waste – that since the legislation was enacted in 1987 has been interpreted ever more widely by politicians and the public to include nuclear power, uranium prospecting and many other applications of nuclear technology.