The bomb tests that weren’t welcome
In May 1955, British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill asked the New Zealand Government if it was OK for the Brits to test their prospective hydrogen bomb on the Antipodes Islands, just 860 kilometres southeast of Dunedin.
By that date, Britain had exploded 12 atomic bombs plus 11 smaller A-bombs in remote parts of Australia, and was looking for a new site to test its huge prospective hydrogen bomb.
In June 1954, Churchill proclaimed that Britain ‘‘must maintain and strengthen its position as a world power so that Her Majesty’s Government can exercise a powerful influence in the councils of the world.’’
He thought the way forward was to proceed with the development of a new thermonuclear device – the hydrogen bomb.
The Australian Government had no qualms about hosting further atomic bomb tests, but drew the line at hydrogen bombs, asserting that, ‘The Federal Government has no intention of allowing any hydrogen bomb tests to take place in Australia, nor has it any intention of allowing any experiments connected with hydrogen bomb tests to take place here’’.
Britain was desperate to become a super nuclear power and widened its hunt for hydrogen bomb test sites to the furthest corners of the Empire.
In 1955, the British Admiralty suggested they try the Antarctic but then went cold on that idea.
The Admiralty then suggested the remote and completely uninhabited Antipodes Islands would be suitable.
Our prime minister Sidney Holland was not happy about this proposal as he thought a hydrogen bomb on the Antipodes Islands might undermine his prospects in the forthcoming national election.
The following year, the British Ministry of Defence thought the Kermadec Islands 1000km north of New Zealand might provide a better site.
Britain’s new prime minister Anthony Eden wrote to Sidney Holland to ask for permission to use the Kermadec Islands but, despite pressure from the British Government, Holland stood firm. He didn’t want hydrogen bombs exploded in New Zealand waters.
Eden wrote that he was disappointed with Holland’s response, as he ‘‘did not feel able to help us’’.
In fact, Holland lost the 1957 election, Walter Nash becoming our prime minister.
The Brits gave up their idea of using New Zealand as its nuclear test zone and looked further afield, finally settling on Christmas Island, near the equator. Christmas Island (now renamed Kiritimati Island) had no native population but about 260 Gilbertese and Ellis Islanders lived there making copra from its coconut palms. They were removed to other islands.
Britain exploded six hydrogen bombs on Christmas Island, so becoming the third country in the world to possess these weapons. New Zealand agreed to send more than 500 military personnel on HMNZS Lachlan and HMNZS Pukaki to observe the nuclear explosions.
Exploding bombs on Antipodes Island would be unthinkable today as the place is a protected nature reserve and home to millions of muttonbirds, plus albatrosses and penguins.
Likewise, a big marine reserve lies round the Kermadecs’ coasts.