The first Ban-the-Bomb protest
Forty-five years ago tomorrow, journalist David Barber was on a New Zealand frigate near the blast zone for a French nuclear test in the Pacific. This is his account of the event.
Forty-five years ago this month, a New Zealand Navy ship witnessed a mushroom cloud rising over the Pacific as France conducted a nuclear test in the atmosphere over its Polynesian atoll Mururoa.
The blast – at 6am NZ time on July 22, 1973 – was observed by the frigate HMNZS Otago cruising about 35 kilometres away on the world’s first government-sponsored Ban-the-Bomb protest.
Prime Minister Norman Kirk ordered it to draw international attention to the French testing ‘‘in New Zealand’s backyard’’. It was, he said, ‘‘New Zealand’s first concrete and positive move for world peace since 1938’’.
Standing on the bridge of the ship, I reported the blast for the New Zealand Press Association (NZPA) on a direct radio link to Wellington. My report was sent on to Reuters and it made front pages of newspapers all over the world, sparking a wave of global condemnation.
‘‘Never before,’’ Kirk said later, ‘‘has world opinion on nuclear testing been so stirred.’’
It was the first time a French test had been witnessed and reported by outsiders.
Mururoa (or Moruroa as it was spelled in the Polynesian dialect) meant ‘‘The Place of the Great Secret’’ and it was aptly chosen for the nuclear programme, as the French never announced that they had conducted a test.
The world learned of them only through seismic monitoring for earthquakes in the region, leaving nuclear experts to guess their size and type. The test we saw, thought to be a trigger device, was estimated at 15 kilotons of TNT by the United States Atomic Energy Detection System, or 5 kilotons smaller than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima 28 years earlier.
It was strung from a large barrage balloon tethered to barges moored in the lagoon and flying about 2000 feet (608 metres) above Mururoa.
Wearing heavy goggles and gloves and shrouded in anti-flash gear resembling a bee-keeper’s protective wear – which I suspected would prove about as useful against radioactive fallout – I was one of only five people on the ship’s bridge to watch the blast.
I immediately reported: ‘‘Within a few minutes of the blast, the cloud began to form and could be seen clearly on the horizon above Mururoa, rising through a layer of cumulus cloud and billowing out into a perfect mushroom.’’ (There was mushroom soup on the officers’ wardroom menu that lunchtime. A cook swore it was coincidental.)
Unlike the private protest yachts that sailed to Mururoa over the years, HMNZS Otago was never intended to physically try to stop the tests. Kirk said it would be a ‘‘silent accusing witness with the power to bring alive the conscience of the world’’.
To ensure international publicity, he put a Cabinet minister, Fraser Colman (like me, the father of three young children) on the ship and ordered the navy to accommodate a three-man press party.
I, representing the NZPA, which served every newspaper in the country and was an associate of the international agency Reuters, was the only print journalist, and reporter Shaun Brown and cameraman Wayne Williams provided radio and television coverage for the then-New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation.
The ship, with 242 crew and passengers, including a civilian radiation scientist, sailed from Auckland on June 28, six days after judges of the International Court of Justice in The Hague voted 8-6 vote in favour of a New Zealand appeal urging France to abandon its proposed testing programme.
France rejected the ruling. After an often boring four weeks at sea, alleviated only by the occasional refuelling rendezvous with an Australian Navy supply ship, the French seizure of the private ketch Fri indicated that a test was imminent.
The Fri had been at sea with a crew of 16, including the pregnant 20-year-old Patchouli Yeates, for nearly four months when it refused to leave a French-declared no-go zone. I was talking to it from the Otago’s bridge radio on July 17 when a 15-man French boarding party of naval commandos took it over.
‘‘This will probably be our last communication,’’ skipper David Moodie told me. ‘‘They are about to take the radio ...’’
It then went dead.
The Fri’s seizure was a sure sign that the 1973 testing programme was about to start and the test came five days later after the ketch was towed to Mururoa and its crew flown to another military base on Hao island, where they were confined until the year’s testing programme finished.
The weather ruled out any further tests on the next two days and the media trio were relieved by replacement reporters on HMNZS Canterbury, which took over the official protest mission.
The Otago docked at Auckland’s Princess Wharf on August 2 after a record 35 days at sea steaming more than 14,800km over the South Pacific.
HMNZS Canterbury saw one other test – so small that it was dubbed by its Captain Derek Cheney as ‘‘more like a poisonous toadstool than a mushroom’’ – before returning to Auckland on August 13.
France conducted 41 tests in the Pacific atmosphere between 1966 and 1974 when it moved them underground, following the New Zealand protest.
I regard the decision to send the frigates as a defining moment in New Zealand history, marking a turning point in the country’s development as a sovereign nation. Until then, successive governments had invariably acted with conventional diplomacy and sycophantically in concert with traditional allies.
‘‘From now on, when we have to deal with a new situation, we shall not say what do the British think about it, or what would the Americans want us to do?’’ Kirk said later. ‘‘Our starting point will be what do we think about it? What course of action best accords with the fundamental principles of our foreign policy? We are a small nation but we will not abjectly surrender to injustice.’’
‘‘From now on . . . we shall not say what do the British think about it, or what would the Americans want us to do? Our starting point will be what do we think about it?’’
David Barber, NZPA correspondent, on HMNZS Otago.
Mike Cole, a petty officer seaman on the HMNZS Otago when it sailed to Mururoa to protest against French nuclear testing, took this photo of a mushroom cloud in 1973.
New Zealand Prime Minister Norman Kirk farewells crew in Auckland aboard HMNZS Otago, en route to Mururoa in 1973.