by Robert Green

Robert Green points to disadvantages likely to accrue from any change in New Zealand’s approach to the admission of nuclear-powered ships.

In August 1992 New Zealand anti-nuclear groups invited me, as a former British Navy Commander concerned about the safety of nuclear power, to conduct a national speaking tour, and meet politicians and members of the Special Committee on Nuclear Propulsion. I brought a video of a UK TV documentary called “Polaris in Deep Water” which had not been shown in this country. It investigated reports of cracks in reactor coolant pipes in both the Royal Navy’s Polaris nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarine force and other nuclear-powered attack submarines.

In it, the Chair of the UK Nuclear Powered Warships Safety Committee admitted that British nuclear submarines were currently banned from foreign port visits because of these cracks. A copy of the transcript of the interview had arrived in the mail with eight pages, which covered the admission, ripped out. The documentary maker suspected harassment by British government agents monitoring my upcoming visit.

The Special Committee’s report “The Safety of Nuclear Powered Ships”, published in December 1992, was irresponsibly unscientific and simply wrong when it claimed: “The presence in New Zealand ports of nuclear-powered vessels of the navies of the United States and United Kingdom would be safe.” It was so aggressively pro-nuclear that the National government did not risk using it for its obvious purpose - to justify removing the nuclear propulsion ban in the 1987 Nuclear Free Zone Act - and instead quietly buried it.

Within months, The Scotsman newspaper revealed in August 1993 that the Royal Navy had contingency plans for a worst-case accident in a nuclear-powered submarine based in Faslane, near Glasgow, which included evacuation of an area out to 10 km depending on wind strength and direction because of the potential radioactive contamination.

A decade later, the New Zealand government must stand firm against pressure from the Bush administration to link a possible preferential trade deal with withdrawal of the ban. Some reasons follow:

Caving in on the nuclear propulsion ban would be seen by the world as the beginning of the end of New Zealand’s courageous, hard-won global role as a relatively independent honest broker and leader in promoting alternative security policies which are not locked into US nuclear war-fighting strategies, uphold international law and are environmentally responsible.

Commander Green served in the Royal Navy from 1962 to 1982, navigating Buccaneer nuclear strike aircraft and anti-submarine helicopters and serving in Fleet intelligence. With wife Dr Kate Dewes, he is now co-ordinator of the Peace Foundation’s Disarmament and Security Centre in Christchurch.