The bomb tests that weren’t wel­come

The Dominion Post - - Front Page - BOB BROCKIE

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.

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