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Confusion Reigns over Nuclear Propelled Ships

Confusion Reigns over Nuclear Propelled Ships

Heather Roy, National Security Spokesman
Friday, 24 February 2006
Articles - Defence

It isn't often that National and Labour agree overtly about an issue but there is current political consensus to oppose visits by nuclear propelled ships. Unfortunately this means a crucial security issue will continue to go undebated. National Party policy is now Labour policy. In an attempt to avoid confusion the National Party decided last week it would no longer hold a referendum thus denying New Zealanders the chance to express their views on this matter. It is disappointing that National has removed even the pretence of leadership on this issue leaving ACT as the only political party to unequivocally believe that nuclear propelled ships should be able to enter New Zealand waters.

The history of New Zealand's anti-nuclear policy is revealing. It began when the Lange government in 1987 passed the New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament and Arms Control Act. The move was very popular within the Labour Party. Many members were angry about the free market reforms being passed to deal with the economic mess that Lange had inherited in 1984. The anti-nuclear legislation gathered the left of the party around him. It is often forgotten that Lange initially sought to ban only nuclear weapons but was persuaded to ban all nuclear vessels from New Zealand shores. At the time it wasn't a big issue because all nuclear ships were nuclear armed. However, the Cold War was about to end surprisingly quickly and in favour of the democracies.

One result was a significant de-escalation of nuclear tension. Nuclear weapons were removed from surface ships including those that were nuclear powered. Almost 30 years later visiting American ships are certain not to be nuclear armed but are unwelcome in New Zealand waters anyway. This is most unfortunate as the USA is New Zealand's most important ally.

Key in this debate is that the issue of nuclear weapons has become confused with the issue of peaceful use of radioactive fuel. There is overwhelming agreement that New Zealand should not be used as a base for nuclear weapons and this policy is consistent with international obligations to limit the spread of nuclear weaponry. The use of nuclear propulsion however is a completely different issue and should be considered as a peaceful use of radioactive material.

New Zealand already has a number of industries that use radioactive material. We import 3,000 radioactive material shipments each year. Kiwis have over 1 million dental x-rays and over 2 million medical x- rays every year. Radioactive material is used frequently for medical treatment, for scientific research and in the sterilisation of food. In the energy debate a significant minority favour nuclear power and any informed debate would include it as an option. Even some high profile Green's, including Greenpeace founder Patrick Moore, advocate nuclear power as the environmentally acceptable power of the future.

The nuclear propulsion debate has become emotive and confused, preventing reasoned debate based on sound scientific evidence. A nuclear powered ship's reactor is simply a micro-reactor powering a turbine that in turn powers the ship. Safety issues were well investigated and reported in the 1992 Somers Report, a report commissioned by the Bolger government to examine public safely and environmental concerns in relation to visits to New Zealand ports by nuclear propelled ships. Mr Bolger was keen to improve our relationship with the USA at this time but was aware of the unpopularity of nuclear weapons. The report found no concerns that justified the continuation of the legislative ban. The findings have been steadfastly ignored.

To quote from the report:

"The operational record of powered vessels of the United States and Britain is such that there has never been an accident to a propulsion reactor involving a significant release of radiation."

One surprising statistic is that at the time of the writing of the report more nuclear radiation was emitted from Auckland Hospital in one day than was emitted by the US Navy in a year.

The Somers Report is a thorough investigation, well constructed and easy to read - well worth the effort for those who would like to be reliably informed.

Forgotten in this whole debate is the fact that no nuclear propelled surface vessel carries nuclear weapons. It is also a fact that no nuclear or conventionally powered foreign warship would ever visit our ports without the consent of the New Zealand Government. The current legislative ban is totally unnecessary and extremely offensive to our allies. Labour and National governments, since legislation was enacted, have maintained they want to preserve a good working relationship with our traditional allies but the ban is akin to saying to friends "Come for dinner but I don't like the sound of your car engine so don't drive it down my street".

What we need is reasoned debate based on sound science. Instead we have political decisions based on hysteria and unfounded fear.


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