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The New Zealand Medical Journal

 Journal of the New Zealand Medical Association, 18-June-2004, Vol 117 No 1196

Safety concerns about nuclear-powered vessels persist
New Zealand’s major opposition political party has released a discussion paper on improving the relationship between New Zealand and the United States.1 One key aspect of the paper considers changing New Zealand’s nuclear-free legislation by dropping the section banning nuclear-propelled vessels (section 11).
However, the safety concerns around nuclear-propelled vessels are glossed over by this discussion paper. For example, it does not consider reports of past radiation releases by the US nuclear navy (eg, involving the USS Guardfish and the USS Nimitz2). Also ignored are recent accidents involving US nuclear submarines, including the collision of the USS Greeneville with a fishing vessel3 and the grounding of the USS Hartford on the Italian coast in 2003.4 Fortunately, none of these events have had major consequences, but the potential for such an event cannot be ignored given the inherent safety limitations of complex and tightly coupled technologies such as nuclear power.5
Even the grounding of a nuclear-powered vessel could still have serious implications for the country’s trade and tourism—which could then have downstream health impacts if the economy was disrupted.
A new consideration that is not mentioned in the discussion paper is the potential for terrorist attacks on shipping. There have been such attacks on US naval vessels (eg, the USS Cole in Yemen6) and on other shipping (eg, on the Limburg, a French oil tanker7).
It is therefore of concern that this discussion paper, which could ultimately become government policy, does not have an appropriate evidence base. Surely, it is time for New Zealanders to demand of their politicians a higher standard of policy analysis, and to make sure that the potential health impacts of policies are appropriately considered.
Dr Nick Wilson
Chairperson, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW)
(New Zealand Branch)
  1. New Zealand National Party Taskforce. The Relationship between New Zealand and the United States. Wellington: New Zealand National Party; May 2004.
  2. Arkin WM, Handler JM. Nuclear disasters at sea, then and now. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 1989; (July/August): 20–24. Available online. URL: Accessed June 2004.
  3. BBC. US completes sub collision inquiry. BBC News Online, 14 April, 2001. Available online. URL: Accessed June 2004.
  4. Owen R. US nuclear sub ran aground off Italian coast. The Times, 12 November; 2003.
  5. Perrow C. Normal Accidents: Living with high-risk technologies. New York: Basic Books; 1984.
  6. BBC. Yemen attack highly 'sophisticated'. BBC News Online, 23 October 2000. Available online. URL: Accessed June 2004.
  7. BBC. TNT found in stricken Yemen tanker. BBC News Online, 11 October 2002. Available online. URL: Accessed June 2004.

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