Why New Zealand's Nuclear-Powered Ship Ban Must Stay: Robert Green Points to Disadvantages Likely to Accrue from Any Change in New Zealand's Approach to the Admission of Nuclear-Powered Ships. (Comment)

By Green, Robert | New Zealand International Review, May-June 2003 | Go to article overview

Why New Zealand's Nuclear-Powered Ship Ban Must Stay: Robert Green Points to Disadvantages Likely to Accrue from Any Change in New Zealand's Approach to the Admission of Nuclear-Powered Ships. (Comment)


Green, Robert, New Zealand International Review


In August 1992 New Zealand antinuclear 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 British television 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 British 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.

Contingency plans

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 ten kilometres 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:

* New Zealand's nuclear-free legislation is not anti-American. It is pro-human and environmental security for New Zealand.

* Banning nuclear-powered warships is a rare example of application of the precautionary principle. Adopted at the Earth Summit in 1992, this recognises the vulnerability of the environment, acknowledges the limitations of science and engineering, reverses the burden of proof, and assesses alternatives.

* The American and British governments have to accept absolute liability for the consequences of a nuclear accident in one of their warships. However, no commercial insurance company has ever insured either nuclear-powered merchant ships (which were all economic failures) or electricity generation plants because a worst-case accident, like the 1986 Chernobyl reactor explosion, cannot be ruled out.

* The US Navy and the Royal Navy show a high level of concern about safety and preparedness for an accident in a nuclear-powered warship in a foreign port, with detailed instructions on how to deal with media and local authorities. This reflects their sensible assessment of the unacceptable consequences for their operations if an accident causes damage to life and property ashore.

* Following the successful terrorist attack on the destroyer USS Cole in Aden in 2000, the US Navy recognised that nuclear-powered warships in port (like shore-based power plants) are prime terrorist targets, because the consequences of a successful attack would be potentially catastrophic. Because of this, even before 11 September 2001, the US Navy did not allow its nuclear-powered ships to visit New York and several other major US ports. US pressure to allow visits to foreign ports by its nuclear-powered warships, therefore, means that it is willing to place other countries at risk of terrorist attack. …

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Why New Zealand's Nuclear-Powered Ship Ban Must Stay: Robert Green Points to Disadvantages Likely to Accrue from Any Change in New Zealand's Approach to the Admission of Nuclear-Powered Ships. (Comment)
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