Anti-nuclear New Zealand

Thirty years ago today, New Zealand Labour government said we were anti-nuclear. We told the US that we did not want nuclear-powered or nuclear-armed ships in our harbours. While we have always been friendly with the United States, we were worried about nuclear accidents which could affect our country. The US downgraded our relationship from ‘ally’ to ‘friend’. These days we are back to being a close ally of the US, especially in defence.

Why did we become so strongly anti-nuclear? It was the time of nuclear bomb testing in the Pacific. In the 1970s, France began nuclear testing in the Pacific. France has many islands in the Pacific – French Polynesia consists of 118 islands, including Tahiti and some very small islands called atolls. One of these atolls, Mururoa, was the site for testing of their nuclear bombs. France said that these tests were safe but Pacific Islanders were worried. They said, “If the tests are safe, do them in Paris.”

In 1972, Greenpeace sailed into the Pacific to protest against these nuclear tests. Then in 1973, the New Zealand Labour government sent two navy frigates into the Pacific to monitor the tests. An Australian navy ship accompanied them. They got close enough to observe the fallout from the test in the atmosphere. People in New Zealand were becoming unhappy about these nuclear tests.

In 1985, the Greenpeace ship, the Rainbow Warrior, was sunk by an explosion in Auckland harbour. One man was killed in the explosion. Two French military agents were found guilty.

During this period, US navy ships often stopped in New Zealand harbours, mostly for their men to have time for a rest after being at sea for long periods. In 1987, the Labour government declared we are a nuclear-free country. This meant we did not allow any US navy ships into New Zealand because we did not know whether they were nuclear-armed or nuclear-powered and the US refused to say.

So today it is 30 years since we became a nuclear-free country.

For more about the Rainbow Warrior bombing, listen to 30 years since the Rainbow Warrior bombing and Rainbow Warrior and Compensation for the bombing


• nuclear-armed (adj)– having nuclear weapons on board
• down-graded (v) – moved from a strong relationship to a weaker relationship
• ally (n)– close friends, work together on defence
• frigate (n) – a navy ship
• monitor (v)– to observe, to check
• fallout (n) – a cloud in the atmosphere which came from the test (a mushroom cloud)