A Sleeping Project

On 16 November 2016, there were protests on the Auckland waterfront. New Zealand Defence Industry Association’s 19th Defence Industry Forum was planned to take place at the Viaducts Events Centre, however, having one of the world’s largest nuclear arms manufacturer, Lockheed Martin, as its main sponsor, and described by activist organisations as a weapons exposition, protesters blocked access to the venue.

In the same week, international navy vessels were entering Waitematā harbour as part of New Zealand Navy’s 75th Celebrations. The line-up included USS Sampson, the first American warship to visit New Zealand in over 30 years. American naval visits had ceased ever since nuclear armed and powered vessels were banned from entering New Zealand in 1984.

USS Sampson’s visit received two kinds of reactions. The vessel arrived nuclear-free, implying revitalised naval relations with the US without any compromise to New Zealand’s anti-nuclear policy. This aspect was received positively, as seen in John Key’s affirmation on Radio New Zealand and Nicky Hager’s writing in the New Zealand Herald. On the other hand, Australian physicist and anti-nuclear advocate Dr Helen Caldicott – invited by The Peace Foundation to speak on ending the global arms trade – warned that it heralded a new phase of American militarisation of the Pacific.1 Peace organisations further criticised this display of militarism for contradicting Auckland’s status as a City of Peace,2 as well for the fact that a council facility had almost hosted the forum.

Representatives of peace organisations made public deputations to their local boards over this contradiction. I was invited to attend one delivered to the Waitematā Local Board by Katherine Gladwin Ross, who I had met the day before through participating in Lee Mingwei’s artwork The Sleeping Project at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki. Katherine happened to be a representative, and I listened to her deliver the statement alongside Audrey van Rijn at the local board office,3 where the board members acknowledged the inconsistencies and passed the statement to be presented to the Auckland Council.

This is how I was reminded of New Zealand’s pacifist and nuclear-free policy, the protests and the deputation being a continuation of the feat from 30 years ago.

Part of VAANA Peace Mural by Vanya Lowry. Photo by Kaoru Kodama


No nukes is good nukes, 2017

New Zealand has an amazing history of becoming nuclear-(weapons) free. It started in 1958 with Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) registering public opposition against nuclear armaments and the testing of nuclear weapons in the Pacific. A frigate was sent to Mururoa Atoll in 1973 by Norman Kirk’s government to protest against the French nuclear testing; yachts, canoes and dinghies with parliament members, company directors, activists and all kinds of ordinary people on board faced each visiting nuclear-armed and -powered vessel out in the harbours at Auckland and Wellington from 1975 to 1984.

Grassroots efforts were vital to the movement turning into a national one; during The Sleeping Project, Katherine told me the story of Nuclear Free New Zealand Campaign that her late father Larry Ross launched in 1981. The campaign travelled through towns down the country, building popular support that led to 105 councils declaring themselves nuclear free zones by 1987. The same year, New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament, and Arms Control Act came into effect.

There are currently 15,350 nuclear warheads in the world, 93% of which is owned by the US and Russia.4 The possibility of nuclear weapons being used today does lie in conflicts between the Superpowers or terrorists gaining possession, but it also lies in what could be described as “oops” moments, such as accidents around maintenance, transport or storage of nuclear weapons, system failure, or diplomatic miscommunication. History has proven that human error is ineradicable, yet nuclear weapons continue to exist even though the consequences are clearly not worth the risk.

Nuclear disarmament is a slow and complex process, as I’ve learnt from the people who work in this field. The foreign representatives, activists and NGO volunteers I’ve met never question their will or patience in the face of something so long term, aware that it may not be achieved within their lifetime. I remember one hibakusha (atomic bomb survivor) at an anti-nuclear weapons conference expressing his regret, even apologising, at the likely possibility of having to pass this responsibility onto the next generation.5   

Any nuclear-free zone therefore is an essential building block for global disarmament, and New Zealand’s policy, as articulated by David Lange, to refuse to be protected by nuclear weapons was a gift to this long process.6 New Zealand has also contributed to the international community by supporting resolutions at the United Nations to ban all nuclear weapons tests, and helping to establish a South Pacific nuclear-weapons-free zone.

And now as of January 2017, negotiations around an international ban on nuclear weapons is planned to take place at the United Nations in New York, firstly this coming March, then a second round in June-July. More information can be found on the site of its main advocate, International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear weapons (ICAN), an NGO coalition.


Dormant in New Zealand

While initiatives like ICAN illustrate that global consensus is clearly against using nuclear technology for warfare, peaceful applications of nuclear science remains an open debate.

The term “nuclear-free zone” might imply a completely nuclear-free stance, but New Zealand, like most developed countries, uses nuclear technology for research and medical purposes. There is also no law specifically prohibiting the construction of nuclear power plants; New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament, and Arms Control Act is in fact limited to military usage.

There was the Coalition against Nuclear Power in 1976 and the Campaign for Non-Nuclear Futures, demonstrating public opposition to nuclear power on ethical, environmental grounds as endangering health of future generations. However, as Rebecca Priestley writes in her book Mad on Radium: New Zealand in the Atomic Age, official decisions made in the past against nuclear power plants were not based on ethical objections but on practical, economic reasons at the time.7 Hence, nuclear energy could be reconsidered as an option today along the same lines.8 Six regional councils (Northland, Auckland, Tasman, Nelson, Waikato, Southland)  have policies prohibiting the use of nuclear energy, but a National Policy Statement can override them.9

A 2015 article, A Nuclear Error – But have you no Fear? Assessing whether the Time has come for New Zealand to Embrace Nuclear Energy, written by University of Auckland graduate Brendan Abley in the New Zealand Journal of Environmental Law, reconsiders the possibility of nuclear energy resurfacing in New Zealand. His assessment covers current policies on nuclear energy, predicted electricity demands, available renewable resources and their current policies, and the pros and cons of installing a nuclear power plant.

To summarise the article very briefly: The New Zealand government faces challenges in providing stable, sustainable electricity while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Hydroelectricity, wind, geothermal, tidal and solar energy are currently not developed to their full potential due to lack of government incentives and opposition from local communities and environmental groups. Time consuming and complex regulating processes have also discouraged companies further. 

Nuclear energy generation is relatively secure and does not produce any greenhouse gases. It can also be constructed closer to centres with high energy demand, cutting transmission costs. Additional costs however will be required for minimising risks – especially after the Fukushima accident – and further maintenance costs, the increasingly competitive international uranium market and New Zealand’s small population would make it an economically disadvantageous option. And seeing as one nuclear power plant would produce 22% of the country’s electricity, it would be counterproductive to government’s target of taking 90% of electricity from renewable resources by 2025.

Nuclear waste is another serious issue. New Zealand has no stable land deep enough to store the radioactive waste, and even if it did, the waste would remain harmful to people and the environment for generations to come.10 There is also the risk of nuclear terrorism, not to mention the immense and irreversible damage a reactor accident would cause. Abley’s conclusion therefore is against nuclear energy in New Zealand, adding that finding new resources should not be the only approach. Energy efficiency and the modern lifestyles that create current energy demands would also need to be assessed. 

One last but crucial piece of information from Abley’s article is that both natural disasters and human error caused the Fukushima accident. An official report commissioned by the Japanese parliament found that it was “the result of ‘collusion’ between the government, regulatory bodies and the plant’s operator.”11 To add to the picture from Dr Caldicott, contaminated water from the plant continues to be released into the Pacific, and governmental reports on radiation levels throughout the country remain inaccurate.



I know a few Japanese families who immigrated here after the Fukushima accident, and most of them have small children. Their mental stability suffers in an environment polluted with radiation as they become restricted in their freedom to roam and play, constantly worried about being exposed to the substance they cannot sense. Understandably only families with the means to emigrate can relocate to a cleaner environment, and according to one family, some communities in Japan consider such moves abroad taboo and unpatriotic. Families becoming separated is a common enough story.

It is in this light that relational art is being re-examined in Japan, where numerous community projects have been commissioned in the affected areas.12 Currently on show at the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki is Taiwanese-American artist Lee Mingwei’s retrospective exhibition, Lee Mingwei and His Relations: The Art of Participation, visiting from the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo.

As the chief curator of Lee’s show Mami Kataoka mentions in the exhibition catalogue, his participatory art was able to provide healing and reconnection to his audience in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. Kataoka illustrates this using her own reaction to The Letter Writing Project, shown in 2012 at the Shiseido Gallery in Tokyo. Inspired by Lee’s own experience of writing unsaid things to his late grandmother, the work invites visitors to write similar letters, provoking Kataoka’s emotional response to reading some of them.

Lee’s dialogical participatory piece The Sleeping Project that I took part in, invites audience members selected from a ballot to spend the night at the gallery in the company of a host (a gallery staff). I am lucky here in New Zealand that my experience of his work was a  cautionary one, despite the disquieting possibility that it could easily have been otherwise. While I admire his work’s ability to heal in one context and caution in another, the latter was enough to remind me of the risks of nuclear energy, and that nuclear free countries cannot ever be taken for granted.

Initially I put my name in the ballot for this participatory piece after listening to Lee’s talk, in which he shared beautiful stories of the encounters and connections that conceived or took place through his art. At the time I only wanted to hear more anecdotes, and thought through participating I somehow might be able to. Subsequently, I went home with more than that; I can’t imagine how I would have attended the deputation otherwise. I probably would have probed into New Zealand’s anti-nuclear identity some other way given my previous interest in the movement, yet it was Lee’s work that initiated it. For this reason,  I appreciate that it offers visitors a chance at encounters or connections through some meaning of their own. The Sleeping Project in my case was a reminder that New Zealand did choose to become nuclear free; hopefully that means what is of more value is already clear.

Please note that views expressed here are my own and do not reflect those of the following people; thank you to Katherine Gladwin Ross, Laurie Ross and Dr Kenneth Palmer for providing or directing me to some of the historical and legal information.

Caldicott, Helen. “An End to Armed Conflict: New Zealand’s Unique Challenge.” Lecture, Auckland University of Technology, Nov. 15, 2016.

Officially declared by Auckland Council in December 2011. Cities of Peace and Mayors for Peace is a worldwide network of over five thousand cities.

As local residents, Katherine also as a representative of WILPF and NFNZ

4 Caldicott, Helen. Guest speaker. Helen Caldicott – Anti-nuclear warrior. Sunday Morning. New Zealand: Radio New Zealand, Nov. 20, 2016.

5 International Conference against Hydrogen and Atomic Bombs is a week-long annual event held in Hiroshima and Nagasaki every August.

6 Priestley, Rebecca. Mad on Radium: New Zealand in the Atomic Age. (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2012), 212.

7 Ibid. viii.

8 Ibid. 252.

9 Abely, Brendan. “A Nuclear Error – But have you no Fear? Assessing whether the Time has come for New Zealand to Embrace Nuclear Energy.” New Zealand Journal of Environmental Law, 19 (2015): 281-328.

10 “Nuclear waste: Keep out for 100,000 years” by Michael Stothard in The Financial Times examines artistic solutions to communicating the dangers of nuclear waste depositories to future civilisations.

11 Abely. 281-328.

12 Jun Kitazawa’s My Town Market (2011 – ongoing) is an example.