by Gareth Hughes
I thought I would share with you this opinion piece I had published in the Bay of Plenty Times yesterday. What do you think?
These last few days, the world has watched Seoul as the global leaders discuss the ever-pressing issue of nuclear security, right in the shadow of North Korea. In increasingly uncertain times, the prevention of nuclear terrorism and the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons is one of the leading topics on the international political agenda. In New Zealand, we routinely congratulate ourselves when discussions like this arise, taking each opportunity to remind the world that we are, and always have been nuclear-free, and that the rest of the world would do well to follow suit.
This is precisely the message John Key has taken to the Nuclear Security Summit, to which he was invited in an attempt to demonstrate New Zealand’s proud, nuclear-free stance to the rest of the world. However, as Dr. Tanya Ogilvie-White noted last week, our calls for further non-proliferation lack substance, for we have yet to pass the laws necessary to ratify the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism. New Zealand is also part of the international nuclear chain, regularly allowing uranium yellowcake to tranship through our ports.
To ratify the Convention would not only confirm our pursuit of global non-proliferation and add our name to the list of nations who recognise the dangers inherent in nuclear armament, but would also serve to address the fact that we’re not actually as nuclear free as we say we are. To do so may seem like a token gesture – after all, New Zealand is hardly a target for acts of nuclear terrorism. As the Prime Minister said on Tuesday “we’re the only country that doesn’t have nuclear power, nuclear materials or nuclear weapons.” But this is besides the point. It is also not true.
Until we ratify these treaties and laws, we cannot go calling on other states to do the same. We need to do more than just talk the talk on nuclear security – we need to walk the walk. Unfortunately for us, we have a little way to go yet, because our failure to ratify the Convention is not the only one of New Zealand’s nuclear-free hypocrisies on display in South Korea this week.
Roughly every fortnight, ships coming from Adelaide dock in the Port of Tauranga, each of which carries up to 750 tonnes of uranium yellowcake. Even more alarming is the fact that this was going on since 1996, with no Government knowledge until 2009 when the Environmental Risk Management Authority finally approved the shipments.
While this uranium may seem benign – the containers in which it is carried never leave the ships while in New Zealand waters – these shipments are a huge black mark on our globally admired nuclear-free record. For New Zealand to be specifically asked to appear at a nuclear non-proliferation summit alongside the likes of Russia, the United States and the United Kingdom is a testament to how respected we are across the world for our commitment to nuclear peace and security. This reputation could be seriously jeopardised should anything happen to this uranium.
Following the Rena disaster last year, I wrote about the possibly irreversible damage a radioactive spill could do to our environmental reputation. Just think what it would do to our nuclear-free reputation were the boats to be hijacked or the uranium stolen.
I must immediately state that I do not say this to be an alarmist. I’d be the first to admit that this is incredibly unlikely to the point of impossibility. But the fact is that this dangerous and highly valuable resource is routinely transported through our ports and waters, with barely any safeguards protecting it – least of all legal ramifications for potential acts of nuclear terrorism. These ships do not have any extra security, and the theft of this uranium would have no greater punishment under our current laws than any other form of piracy. The Convention would change that, but only now, seven years after we signed it, have we even begun moving towards ratifying it.
Our international efforts and commitments to nuclear security are truly remarkable. However, it is unfortunate that the Government has been so apathetic with regards to taking any practical measures towards furthering this at home.
The reason the Government has touted for this apathy is that New Zealand has no nuclear materials that could be at risk – the only radioactive materials we really have are minute amounts used for medical purposes. This is not at all true. In addition to the medical nuclear material is the vastly different uranium coming through Tauranga. This goes on to the United States, where it is intended for use in nuclear power plants. However, once it reaches the US, its final destination is hard to prove, and it is highly possible that it goes on to be enriched for use in nuclear weaponry. Just last year however, John Key dismissed it as “Australian dirt.”
This is not a substance we want coming into our waters and through our ports. New Zealand has an unparalleled reputation for advocating nuclear non-proliferation and a nuclear free world. We are admired and respected for it, and it is a stance which has allowed us to punch far above our weight in the international political arena, and has been the gem of our foreign relations.
We cannot risk these decades of hard work by allowing these shipments to continue. For us to ratify the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism will be the next small step in this long tradition, and it will allow us to prove that this country really does care about nuclear security, and hold our heads high at nuclear summits. Putting an end to these shipments of uranium however will be the giant leap, for only when they are stopped will Aotearoa be nuclear free once and for all.