CHALLENGES TO NEW ZEALAND'S NUCLEAR FREE POLICY
As published in Pacific Ecologist, 27 May 2003
In a world of increasing tensions about nuclear rearmament, International Peace Bureau Vice President, KATE DEWES recommends New Zealand strengthens its nuclear-free status and promotes the pro-life cause internationally. After all, Prime Minister Helen Clark has said: "In pursuing nuclear disarmament NZ must be a leader, not a follower."
In the past six months there have been renewed calls by the right-wing ACT party and high-powered members of the National Party to repeal or overturn a significant clause in the 1987 Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament and Arms Control Act. Meanwhile it is now nearly two years since the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade rejected the Green Party's New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone Extension Bill.
Prior to this, the most significant threat to the Act was over a decade ago. In 1992, the National government set up a Special Committee on Nuclear Propulsion to review Clause 11 prohibiting nuclear powered ships into our internal waters. The intention was to scuttle this clause as a way possibly to reactivate the ANZUS Treaty.
At that time, a coalition of anti-nuclear groups invited Rob Green, 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. He brought a video of a UK TV documentary called "Polaris in Deep Water"1 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 Rob's mail with eight pages, which covered the admission, ripped out. The documentary maker suspected harassment by British government agents monitoring his upcoming visit.
US made threats over NZ nuclear-free legislation The nuclear-free policy has always provoked a strong reaction from our traditional allies because it directly challenges their nuclear policies. After then Labour Prime Minister David Lange led the adoption of the nuclear-free legislation, he claims that former US Vice President Dan Quayle told the Australian Cabinet in 1989 he would "have to be liquidated." Lange added: "There were personal pressures. There were veiled threats. There were threats made to other countries."2 Without the overwhelming support of the public, he and other politicians would have been unlikely to withstand the pressure to buckle, like Australia did at that time.
The Special Committee's 1992 report The Safety of Nuclear Powered Ships3 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 further alienating public opinion by using it to remove Clause 11, and instead quietly buried it.
Within months, The Scotsman newspaper4 revealed 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.
Challenges to the Nuclear Propulsion Ban A decade later, the New Zealand government must stand firm against pressure from the Bush administration to link a possible preferential "free" trade deal with withdrawal of Clause 11 in the Nuclear Free Act banning visits by nuclear-powered ships. The drive to change the legislation has been led by the former Labour MP Richard Prebble (now the leader of ACT) who has tabled a private members' Bill to repeal it. This is subject to a lottery system, so its chances of coming up are random. It is a bitter irony that, back in the early 1980s it was Prebble who introduced the first bills calling for the nuclear-free legislation, which he now he dismisses as "an anti-American Cold War relic."
Prebble's lead has been supported by former Labour Prime Minister and WTO Director General Mike Moore, and the corporate lobby because of the alleged link to a "free" trade deal with the US. Others who have gained media attention include the usual suspects like the defence lobby, and of course the US Ambassador Charles Swindells. It is no coincidence that the day the US, UK and Australia invaded Iraq the US immediately opened "free" trade negotiations with Australia. The same day a Wellington economist warned that: "New Zealand's policy of non-alignment – standing aside from traditional allies – is likely to affect the economy and business more than the Iraq war."5 Another commentator, Gareth Morgan, charged Prime Minister Clark with naivety for choosing to "stand on the sidelines and run moral arguments that are of little relevance to anyone but ourselves." He described the 1980s anti-nuclear policy as "another stance of convenience" and a "luxury we could afford" warning that "ditching the nuclear-propelled ships policy is an obvious way to appease the hostility the US and Australia will have towards us."6
However, a few weeks later David Lange retorted: "Giving up the nuclear-free policy won't get us a free trade deal." He cited Chile as a country that made a free trade deal with the United States. "It has no military relationship with the United States and it has a nuclear-free zone which extends 200 miles into the Pacific. It got the deal because the deal suits the United States."7
Ignorance about new US nuclear policy and threats Gerry Brownlee, a leading National MP, wrote an op-ed in the Christchurch Press8 calling for the nuclear-powered ship ban to be scrapped, naively arguing that New Zealand could be restored to "full ally status" under the ANZUS Treaty. In a recent meeting with him, Rob (Green) and I discovered that he was deeply ignorant about almost every aspect of the issue, plus the latest US nuclear posture review and threats to use nuclear weapons against Iraq.
Almost certainly in response to what was seen as Brownlee's latest challenge to Bill English's leadership, on 30 January English announced that National had called in former deputy Prime Minister Wyatt Creech to review National's anti-nuclear policy. Creech would lead a team taking an "in-depth" look at National's stance on the nuclear-powered ship ban. The review would take 3-4 months. However, English said that at present the ban was part of National's policy and he had no intention of revising it.
There are indications that even within the Labour Party there are some MPs who have argued that they would have no problem with removing Clause 11. As a member of the Public Advisory Committee on Disarmament and Arms Control, which has a statutory responsibility to advise on the implementation of the Nuclear Free Act, I have raised the need for the Minister of Disarmament, the Prime Minister and others to be more forthright publicly in their arguments as to why the nuclear propulsion ban must stay.
Why the Nuclear Propulsion Ban Must Stay Here are some reasons for keeping Clause 11:
The nuclear-free legislation is not anti-American. It is pro-human and environmental security for New Zealand and the world.
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 US and UK 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 and UK 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 recognized 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.
Despite Australia being a close US ally, the Australian Nuclear Safety Bureau does not allow any nuclear-powered warship to visit Sydney.
Safety problems in UK nuclear submarines persist. In 2000, different, more serious pipe cracks in HMS Tireless were repaired in the British colony of Gibraltar after a major emergency in the Mediterranean, causing deep concern over many months among both Gibraltarians and the southern Spanish people. In 1996 another submarine of the same class, HMS Torbay, had a steering gear failure while entering Devonport in the UK, prompting a nuclear safety alert to emergency services until tugs regained control.
The grounding of the UK nuclear attack submarine HMS Trafalgar off the Isle of Skye in Scotland on 6 November 2002 was immediately followed by a reassuring Royal Navy statement that there was no nuclear risk to the public. Contrast this with the near-sinking of the British destroyer HMS Nottingham after striking rocks off Lord Howe Island in the Tasman in July 2002. This would have risked a major environmental catastrophe had she been nuclear-powered. Ironically, the destroyer was rumoured to have been there to escort through the Tasman the British Nuclear Fuels Limited (BNFL) ship Pacific Pintail, carrying spent fuel rods back to the UK after rejection by Japan, because BNFL had falsified records about them.
Opposition to nuclear-powered warship visits is also based on wider rejection of the activities and processes used to gain and maintain nuclear technology for military purposes. Mining uranium, its processing for use as fuel in warship reactors or in weapons, and the poisonous radioactive waste cause long-lasting pollution and damage to the health of affected workers and public, including genetic effects. Also, no environmentally safe way has yet been found to dispose of the highly radioactive decommissioned warship reactors.
New Zealand's unequivocal nuclear-free status gives it a unique freedom and authority to criticise the safety of nuclear propulsion and electricity generation, and their incestuous link to creating fissile materials for nuclear weapons. Nuclear-armed states which have followed this path include the UK, Israel, North Korea, India and Pakistan. Many other countries, especially those allied to the US or with an indigenous nuclear industry, are inevitably muzzled.
The economic benefits of New Zealand's "clean, green" image will always outweigh any marginal US trade concessions.9 US fear that NZ's nuclear-free policy may spread
US pressure could also be linked to its concern that the "Kiwi disease" will spread to Japan, where the last conventionally powered aircraft-carrier USS Kitty Hawk based there must soon be replaced by a nuclear-powered one. Apart from the scandal about BNFL falsifying records referred to earlier, there is associated sensitivity in Japan about the admission by Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) that it had covered up accidents and structural problems, and obstructed government inspections at its reactors a decade ago. On 14 April 2003, TEPCO shut down the last of its 17 nuclear reactors for safety checks and gave no date for restarting the reactors. A spokesman said it would depend on how long it takes to complete the safety checks and "earn the public's understanding."10
Caving in on New Zealand's nuclear propulsion ban or its nuclear-free legislation would be seen internationally as the beginning of the end of New Zealand's courageous, hard-won global role as a leader in promoting alternative security policies that uphold international law and are environmentally responsible, through not being locked into US nuclear war-fighting strategies. Changing the policy will not have any influence on securing a "free" trade agreement with the US and it will certainly not be the only concession demanded for a return to a fully operational ANZUS relationship.
Strengthening the Nuclear-Free Policy New Zealand should be considering ways to strengthen the nuclear free policy rather than weakening it. In 2001, the Green Party tabled a Bill to extend the legislation to prohibit the transit of nuclear-armed or propelled warships and transport of nuclear waste through the 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone. If adopted, it would mount a serious challenge to the continued deployment of nuclear weapons through the world's oceans.
Since the legislation was enacted in 1987, a new threat to New Zealand and the Pacific has emerged from the transit of ships between Japan and Europe carrying nuclear waste to be reprocessed, and nuclear fuel following reprocessing. The waste and fuel are highly radioactive, containing plutonium, a bomb material. In the current heightened terrorist threat, such materials could be targeted for seizure or for attack.
According to Professor Elisabeth Mann Borgese and Alyn Ware, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), agreed in 1972, provides some powers of protection for coastal states. Also, since it was adopted, there have been several advances in international environmental law, particularly relating to strengthening the precautionary principle. Since UNCLOS, a coastal state's right to an EEZ has been recognised. The huge increase in ships sailing under "flags of convenience" has challenged the UNCLOS requirement for a genuine link between ships and their flag state, and associated flag state's responsibilities for the conduct of ships operating under its flag. This growing legal vacuum will have to be filled by stronger control from the coastal state through whose EEZ such a ship is passing.11
New Zealand would not be the first country to extend a nuclear ban to its EEZ. In 1998, Chile asserted its right to prevent the transit of nuclear materials through its EEZ by sending a warship to intercept the British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL) ship Pacific Swan. The 1995 Bangkok Treaty establishing a South East Asian Nuclear Weapon Free Zone includes a prohibition of the threat or use of nuclear weapons within signatory states' EEZs. Actions like these by coastal states to protect their interests will inevitably be resisted by nuclear states. However, New Zealand weathered the storm from the US over its nuclear free legislation in 1987, to the extent that the issue developed into a national consensus, linked to a "clean, green" image which fostered trade and tourism.
The current New Zealand government has expressed concern about its inability to monitor and enforce a 200-mile nuclear free zone. While this may be true, the political and legal effect of an action does not rely primarily on the capacity to enforce it. In testimony to the Foreign Affairs Committee in March 2001, Judge Christopher Weeramantry, former Vice-President of the International Court of Justice noted that 95% of the Court's decisions are respected and implemented even though the Court has no enforcement powers. New Zealand took France to the Court in 1972 and 1995 over nuclear testing, which helped achieve the desired result of ending first atmospheric and then underground tests. In international law, laws are often adopted before they can be enforced: the most recent example is the statute of the International Criminal Court.12
A Challenge to the New Zealand Government With the risk of use of nuclear weapons now greater than since the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, there is an urgent need for revived anti-nuclear leadership in the world. In 1987, the NZ Labour government showed the way. Since then, Labour has become complacent.
In June 1998, the National-led government joined a major new international initiative to give fresh impetus to nuclear disarmament. Dubbed the New Agenda Coalition (NAC), the Foreign Ministers of Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa and Sweden criticised the five recognised nuclear weapon states and Israel, plus India and Pakistan which had just overtly tested nuclear weapons, for the lack of progress towards a nuclear weapon-free world. Drawn from nearly every continent and independent of the Cold War blocs, the NAC represented the overwhelming majority of anti-nuclear states.
However, faced with NATO stonewalling on nuclear policy, followed by the terror attacks of 11 September 2001 and the Bush administration's blatant disregard for US undertakings at the May 2000 NPT Review Conference, much of the NAC's momentum was lost. The recent threat to New Zealand's nuclear-free policy is a wake-up call to the government that more radical leadership is required. In light of Australia's split from New Zealand on uncritical support for US policy against Iraq, perhaps Labour should tie up the loose ends of its 1987 nuclear-free legislation?
Blueprint for a More Honest Nuclear-Free Policy, Labour's 1996 manifesto correctly stated that "past military alliances, such as ANZUS, are no longer appropriate for meeting the region's post-Cold War security needs." However, Labour has not officially withdrawn from ANZUS, and continues its membership of the Five-Power Defence Arrangement (FPDA) with the UK, Australia, Malaysia and Singapore. New Zealand is also bound by several secret agreements (such as the UKUSA electronic spying network involving the US, UK, Canada, and Australia) which includes two nuclear states.
The time has come for Labour to strengthen and promote New Zealand's nuclear-free policy within the Commonwealth and the "Western European and Others" group in the UN. New Zealand should challenge all those who are breaking international law by threatening to use nuclear weapons, and bullying those calling for elimination. Helen Clark herself showed the way in a speech to the NZ Peace Foundation in 1997:"I come from the school of thought which says that the greatest threat to New Zealand's security for many years has been the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the threat of nuclear war which that brings. That is why I believe NZ was justified in putting nuclear disarmament measures at the forefront of its agenda, even to the point where it separated us from traditional allies and defence arrangements. The simple truth is that there will not be a replay of World War II in the Pacific, and that the need for conventional alliances like ANZUS has long since passed."13
Defence reviews since then have evaded the issue of formal withdrawal from these alliances, and this government has welcomed visits by French warships, continued to exercise with UK warships under the FPDA, and sent our frigates to the Gulf in support of governments which threaten to use nuclear weapons in a pre-emptive war. The time has come for this government to forthrightly promote a more honest and coherent nuclear free policy by:
1) Formally withdrawing from ANZUS.
2) Refusing to engage in active military co-operation or exercises with any nuclear-armed states, including operation of the Waihopai UKUSA spy station.
3) Extending New Zealand's nuclear free zone to its EEZ, and exploring ways to strengthen it, such as prohibiting transit of nuclear-armed or powered warships or ships carrying hazardous nuclear materials.
4) Working with South Pacific states to strengthen the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty by adopting the prohibition of the threat or use of nuclear weapons within signatory states' EEZs as adopted in the South East Asian Nuclear Weapons Free Zone, and banning shipments of radioactive waste through the South Pacific seas.
5) Continuing to use fora such as the IAEA to challenge nuclear states on the use of nuclear power and shipments of plutonium and other hazardous weapons-usable nuclear materials, and support moves in the WHO to study the health and environmental effects of radiation from nuclear power plants and weapons.
In summary, Labour should regain the nuclear disarmament initiative. It should work closely with the Green Party and other sympathetic parties by boldly leading the end-game towards a nuclear weapon-free world, with a coherent foreign policy and defence strategy, soundly based on strengthened nuclear-free legislation. We should also proudly export this pro-life policy worldwide.
In the words of Prime Minister Helen Clark: "Nuclear disarmament must continue to be at the top of our priorities. In pursuing nuclear disarmament New Zealand must seek to be a leader, not a follower. We must be proactive."14
Dr Kate Dewes, ONZM is Vice-President of the International Peace Bureau and coordinates the Peace Foundation's Disarmament & Security Centre in Christchurch with her husband Commander Rob Green RN (Ret'd). This article is based on a talk given on 22 March in Wellington by Dr Dewes at the public forum RESOURCE WARS: FROM IRAQ TO THE GLOBAL ECONOMY, organised by the Pacific Institute of Resource Management.
1 'Polaris in Deep Water', Thames TV documentary, London, September 1991; producer David Leigh.
2 David King and Tracy Watkins, "Lange back to haunt Clark's visit", The Christchurch Press, 27 March 2002.
3 Report of the Special Committee on Nuclear Propulsion, The Safety of Nuclear Powered Ships, December 1992, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Wellington. (Chairman: Rt Hon Sir Edward Somers).
4 Severin Carroll, "Row as secret nuclear fears are revealed", The Scotsman, 19 August 1993, page 1 and "Anatomy of a worst-case scenario", page 6.
5 Neill Birss, "Non alignment policy may cost economy", The Dominion Post, 22 March 2003.
6 Gareth Morgan, "Selective morality comes at a price", The Dominion Post, 22 March 2003.
7 Rt Hon David Lange, "Scorn and the USA", Sunday Star Times, 13 April 2003.
8 Gerry Brownlee, "Time to rethink our nuclear ban", The Christchurch Press, 10 January 2003.
9 Robert Green, "Reasons to keep the ban", The Christchurch Press, 14 November 2002.
10 Eric Talmadge, Associated Press writer, "Japanese Utility Shuts Down Nuclear Grid", 15 April 2003.story.news.yahoo.com/news
11 Professor Elisabeth Mann Borgese and Alyn Ware, 'Nuclear Denizens of the Deep: Comments on the New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone Extension Bill', Peaceworks, Winter 2001, page 3.
13 Rt Hon Helen Clark, 'Ten Years of Nuclear Free Legislation' reprinted in R E White, 'A Celebration – 10 Years of Nuclear Free Legislation', Centre for Peace Studies, Occasional Paper No 6, Auckland, 1997.