Lipstick, ice cream and bombs, Trevor Richards

Mad on Radium: New Zealand in the Atomic Age
Rebecca Priestley
Auckland University Press, $45.00,
ISBN 9781869407278

In April 1960, thousands of Aucklanders and Wellingtonians flocked to their ports to welcome the USS Halibut. For the New Zealand Herald, the vessel was “an impressive sight”. The paper reported that “ferry passengers gaped and New Zealand sailors slipped away from their jobs to peer at her”. The Wellington visit featured on the New Zealand National Film Unit’s Pictorial Parade.

The ship which was the focus of such attention was the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine. Sixteen years later, the arrival of nuclear-powered vessels into our ports was producing a quite different reaction.

In 2012, being “anti-nuclear” is a badge of honour for New Zealanders. Yet, as Priestley reminds us in the preface of Mad on Radium, it is a relatively new part of our national identity kitset. The New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament and Control Act entered into force on 8 June 1987. Banned from our territories were nuclear weapons, nuclear-powered ships and nuclear waste. In the 1990s, a ban on uranium mining was added.

If we were to use concepts more often associated with the cinema, and the 1987 Act was to be viewed as the “big hit”, then much of the meticulously documented history covered by Mad on Radium can be viewed as its lengthy prequel. The book examines New Zealand’s attitudes to nuclear issues. Its scope is wide, covering the period from the birth of the 20th century to the passage of the 1987 Act and beyond.

In contrast to our current anti-nuclear policies, our pro-nuclear history is a long one. Priestley writes that “in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s New Zealanders embraced nuclear technology and were as excited about the dawning atomic age as any nation’s people.” Less than a decade before New Zealand became nuclear-free, we were seriously considering nuclear power to meet the growing electricity demand in the North Island. In the 1950s, we were enthusiastically prospecting for uranium, the metal basic to the creation of nuclear energy. And before that there were plans for a heavy-water plant at Wairakei (to assist the United Kingdom’s nuclear programme) and the enthusiastic involvement of New Zealand scientists in the Manhattan Project (which led to the ability of the US to drop atom bombs on Japan): “In the first few decades of the 20th century, New Zealand medics and scientists made great use of the discoveries of radium and x-rays.” In 1914 a government spokesman declared that “the public are mad on radium”. So much so that public donations to assist hospitals to buy radium for cancer treatment ensured that by 1929 New Zealand had a greater supply of radium per head than the United Kingdom.

After 1914, government-owned spas at Rotorua, Te Aroha and Hamner promoted radioactive water “as being especially valuable in treating gout, diabetes and constipation, as well as for soothing the nerves and, according to the local newspaper, tightening loose teeth”. In 1916 more than 8,500 glasses of the water were sold.

When the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) was established in 1926, it had as its first head Ernest Marsden, a former student of Ernest Rutherford. “In this role,” Priestley writes, “Marsden became a champion of nuclear science and technology in New Zealand.”

Marsden had been involved in the birth of nuclear physics, and was able to trade on this to get five New Zealanders involved in the atom bomb project. Even the grim reality of the power of the atom bomb – by the end of 1945, 140,000 dead in Hiroshima and 70,000 in Nagasaki – could not disguise New Zealand’s enthusiasm at having been involved in helping to create such a bomb. Priestley recounts that less than a week following the dropping of the bombs, an official New Zealand press release linked the bombs to Ernest Rutherford’s earlier work and outlined the role of New Zealand scientists working in North America, saying how New Zealand should be proud of her scientists that were at the forefront of this latest development.

The transforming enormity of what had happened was not, however, lost on all. Priestley writes that “a few days after the bombing, philosophy lecturer Karl Popper addressed a packed lecture hall at Canterbury University College with the words ‘when the first atomic bomb exploded, the world as we have come to know it came, I believe, to an end.’ ” But it was not Popper’s voice which was in the ascendancy. Following the attack on Japan, the atomic age was seen as an exciting and sophisticated new era. A 1946 issue of the New Zealand Listener carried an advertisement for “Atomic Red lipstick”. As Priestley observes, “it seems in appalling bad taste now to link sexuality with weapons that had killed tens of thousands of people, but the Atomic Red lipstick ads promised women they’d be ‘charged with excitement … devastating … all conquering’. ”

A year later, in August 1947, the “anti-nuclear” movement held its first peace march.

Following WWII, New Zealand entered into partnerships with the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Agency (UKAEA). The agency funded uranium prospecting rights on the West Coast in return for the first right of refusal over any uranium mined. In 1955 there was a brief flurry of excitement. Two septuagenarian prospectors found what they believed was possibly “the second most highly concentrated uranium deposit in the world”. A local ice cream company got in on the act and advertised “Snowflake Uranium Ice Cream”. But uranium mining on the West Coast was not deemed to be commercial.

The heavy-water project at Wairakei, the second partnership between New Zealand and the UKAEA, was dropped by the UK as costs escalated. During the 1950s, nuclear weapons testing in the Pacific brought protests, but officially New Zealand supported the UK nuclear testing programme (1952-58). For the 1957-58 hydrogen bomb tests, New Zealand provided two frigates which acted as weather ships.

Priestley writes that “significantly, however, [Prime Minister] Sidney Holland refused a 1955 British request to test hydrogen bombs on the Kermadec Islands, which were New Zealand territory”, fearing public opinion and concerned that this could upset his narrow Parliamentary majority.

The developing positions of the major political parties are tracked, with perhaps inevitably, some surprises. The Labour Party, today so closely identified with New Zealand’s anti-nuclear legislation, was, in the 1950s, more in favour of nuclear power than National.

Later sections of the book look at developing opposition to nuclear weapons testing, the presence of US warships in our harbours and the advent of New Zealand’s anti-nuclear legislation. These are good trips down memory lane, but for this reviewer, the book’s fascination is the first 200 pages, which cover an essentially pro-nuclear history.

Can New Zealand’s nuclear-free policy be taken for granted? Priestley argues that our decision to strictly limit the uses of peaceful nuclear technology were not ideologically based but economic. We said no to nuclear power, uranium mining, heavy-water plants and nuclear reactors for essentially economic reasons. Priestley believes “the fact that economic arguments were used to argue against these things makes it possible that economic arguments could be used to argue for these things – nuclear power and uranium mining in particular – in the future.” In this context, it is important to remember that, of the above, it is only uranium mining which is proscribed by law.

Science, or in my case, its absence, at times required me to pause, reflect, and occasionally check something out online. But, mostly, my lack of scientific understanding did not prevent me from galloping through the book. In my head, politics trumps science every time.

The book is packed with well laid-out illustrations – photos, cartoons, advertisements – and yes, “Atomic Red lipstick” is there. For all those who support and wish to maintain New Zealand’s current anti-nuclear position, Mad on Radium should be required reading. To know where we came from is a necessary step in ensuring that we do not return.


Trevor Richards is a Paris reviewer.


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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review, Science
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