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Atomic Madness

Mad on Radium: New Zealand in the Atomic Age
by Rebecca Priestley. Auckland University Press, 2012, 284 pp. $45

Reviewed by Simon Nathan
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New Zealanders are proud of their nuclear-free stance and our green, “100% pure” image. So it comes as a surprise for many people to realise that only a generation ago there was widespread enthusiasm for New Zealand to be part of the nuclear club. In 1966 I was delighted to get my first job as a young geologist with the DSIR, looking for uranium on the West Coast. Within my working life, attitudes have changed so much that prospecting and mining uranium are now banned in this country.

The publisher’s blurb rather misleadingly labels this book an alternative history of nuclear New Zealand. Not so – to date this is the only comprehensive account of New Zealand’s nuclear story, documenting the way public attitudes have changed over the years. It is a work of considerable scholarship, based on a PhD study, but is easily accessible. As a popular columnist, Rebecca Priestley has the gift of making complex issues understandable, and the story she tells is fascinating.

Ernest Rutherford was a pioneer in nuclear physics, but the book makes it clear that it was his lieutenant, Ernest Marsden (head of DSIR from 1927-47) who had most influence in New Zealand. Well-connected on the international scene, Marsden found out about wartime research to develop an atomic bomb, and ensured that New Zealand scientists were involved. Most people welcomed the dropping of the first nuclear bombs on Japan as a way of the ending the war. It seems strange now, but in 1946 the Listener carried advertisements for a brand of lipstick called “Atomic Red”.

During and after the war there was a government-funded campaign to find radioactive minerals in New Zealand, and the book includes a 1946 photograph of Labour cabinet ministers posing with a team leaving to look for uranium in Fiordland – obviously regarded as a great photo-opportunity. The eventual discovery of uranium in the Buller Gorge in 1955 caused huge excitement. Even the local ice cream factory in Greymouth got into the act by developing a new flavour – uranium – “the new, rich ice-cream discovery”.

The US-sponsored “Atoms for Peace” program in the 1950s seemed to usher in a new era, where nuclear technology could be used for a range of peaceful purposes, including power generation. It was widely assumed that New Zealand would be generating much of its electricity from nuclear power stations by the end of the 20th century. But, as the author shows, attitudes were changing by the 1970s. Nuclear power plants turned out to be more expensive than originally anticipated, and the disposal of radioactive waste was an intractable problem. New Zealand had other options for generating electricity – hydro, geothermal, and later Maui gas. When the Royal Commission on Nuclear Power reported in 1978, it concluded that nuclear power generation would not be needed until the turn of the century, or perhaps later. It was essentially an economic decision.

Rebecca Priestley traces the progressive change in public opinion as suspicion grew about all matters nuclear. The Labour government’s move to ban vessels that might carry nuclear weapons in early 1985 did not have unanimous support, but the French bombing of the Rainbow Warrior a few months later caused widespread outrage, and helped cement the nuclear-free policy as a matter of national identity.

This book contains some delightful gems of information. Contrary to public belief that the Labour party was the first to take a lead in nuclear issues, it is fascinating to find out that National Prime Minister Sidney Holland refused a request in 1955 for the British to conduct nuclear bomb tests in the Kermadec Islands. Raoul Island, the largest of the group offered a perfect site – in the volcanic crater, which has since erupted twice. Had the tests gone ahead, volcanologists would probably have concluded that they caused the later eruptions.

This book is a major contribution to New Zealand history, and deserves to be widely read. The fact that it stands almost in isolation is a reproach to our local academic community which has so far ignored our distinctive nuclear story as a subject for serious study.

You can read a shortened version of Rebecca Priestley’s work in an article in Te Ara, the online Encyclopedia of New Zealand.