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.

The Southland Times - - Flashback - This is an edited chap­ter from David Bar­ber’s book Whizzing All Over The Place – A For­eign Cor­re­spon­dent’s Mem­oir, pub­lished by Steele Roberts Aotearoa.

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?’’

Nor­man Kirk

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.

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