Ship visits - nuclear-free New Zealand

Ship visits and public opinion

The visit of the nuclear-powered frigate USS Texas in 1983 sparked protest in New Zealand. An election was just around the corner, and the issue of nuclear ship visits would play a prominent part in the campaign.

Visits from warships like the Texas had been a controversial topic long before the 1984 election. Two nuclear-powered cruisers, the USS Truxtun and the USS Long Beach, had attracted protest when they visited New Zealand in 1976. On each occasion, Civil Defence established a public safety headquarters for the duration of the visit. Similar action was taken for the visits of the submarines USS Pintado in 1978 and USS Haddo in 1979. Clearly there was recognition of the risks posed by this technology.

At issue was whether these ships were nuclear armed as well as nuclear-powered. American policy was to 'neither confirm nor deny' this, and most allies chose not to ask – an arrangement that made many people uncomfortable.

Public opinion was increasingly in favour of banning these visits. Between 1978 and 1983 opposition to nuclear-armed ship visits rose from 32% to 72%. Few New Zealanders felt threatened by the Soviet Union (Britain and America's great bogey), but they feared the nuclear bomb and agreed with David Lange that 'there's only one thing worse than being incinerated by your enemies, and that's being incinerated by your friends'.

The National government under Robert Muldoon's leadership saw these visits as an important expression of New Zealand's support for ANZUS and the country's relationship with the United States.

How to cite this page: 'Ship visits - nuclear-free New Zealand', URL: http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/politics/nuclear-free-new-zealand/ship-visits, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 20-Dec-2012

Community contributions


David Minifie
09 Jun 2012
Check out the facebook page on 'Creative Christchurch - 1980's' for the anti-nuclear street theatre of the Fallout Follies and Black Dragon clowns - most of the photos are mine and I can supply higher res versions - these specific protests are not generally known, and joined those of the small boat flotillas against nuclear (US) vessels at the time.
Dave Rutherford
31 May 2012
Perhaps we could ask the people of Fukushima whether they have better understanding of these unrealistic risks now? Overriding benefits? I'm sure the South Vietnamese can't believe their good luck. Ditto Nicaragua, Diego Garcia, Hawaii, The Philipines, Chile, Iraq, Honduras, Iran, and any number of failed African states. The risks of nuclear fission are very, very real, just as the risks of cuddling up to Uncle Sam are. The Anti-Nuclear stance was, and still is, entirely rational.Yes, fear drives the opposition to it, fear of power companies who lie about their safety records, cover up accidents and lie about the scale of nuclear incidents.Fukushima is still not controlled, and the raditation levels are significantly higher than reported. Fear? You betcha, we don't have another planet if we screw this one up.
Bruce Comfort
16 Apr 2012
I would suggest that in para 2 of the text on this page, the statement "Clearly there was recognition of the risks posed by this technology." is pejorative. The perception of the risks was secondary to the belief in the risks which itself was neither scientific nor realistic. Although risks were, and are still, associated with fission nuclear processes for power and for weapons, the issue seems more to me to have been about New Zealand snuggling up to the USA -something many countries still cannot get their heads around despite the overriding advantages of being on side with the country. The anti-nuclear stance adopted by New Zealand was irrational and emotional and will have contributed to the decline in the quality of science and engineering devoted to understanding nuclear technologies by spreading the gospel of fear.

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