01 February 2013

Doctor, I Like Your Nuclear Medicine

Martin Edmond  
Mad on Radium: New Zealand in the Atomic Age, by Rebecca Priestley (AUP, 2012), 284 pp., $45.00.

In December 1923 Ernest Rutherford sent, from England, a cable to Wellington Hospital confirming that the price they were intending to pay for a single gram of radium was a fair one. When the hospital authorities, on the basis of this advice, decided to go ahead with the purchase, Rutherford personally selected the gram from Radium Belge of London (it probably came from the Belgian Congo) and it arrived in New Zealand the following year, along with a certificate of authentication signed by no less a person than Marie Skłodowska-Curie. The gram was kept in the basement of the hospital, where radon gas emanating from it was collected, sealed into tiny glass tubes, enclosed in suitable adaptors and sent, with platinum seeds and needles, throughout the country for use in cancer treatments.

            If this seems early for an enthusiasm for nuclear medicine, it is; but such a use of radon gas was not the earliest, nor the only, symptom of the craze. There had been, since 1914, radium baths in the resort town of Rotorua; and there Arthur Wohlmann, the balneologist responsible for government owned spas at Te Aroha and Hamner Springs as well as those in Rotorua, was a passionate proponent of the health benefits, not just of bathing in irradiated water, but for drinking it as well. Four to six small glasses a day, he said, were effective in the treatment of gout, diabetes, constipation, for the soothing of jangled nerves and even, or so the press improbably reported, the tightening of loose teeth. Wohlmann wasn’t a quack; he was a medical doctor and scientist, working at the cutting edge of new and exciting medical technology.

            Rebecca Priestley, author of Mad on Radium: New Zealand in the Atomic Age, begins her excellent and highly entertaining account of the progress of the radium enthusiasm with the story of Dr. Wohlmann and follows it through the twentieth century until the nation’s adoption of a bipartisan nuclear free policy in the 1980s and 90s; her intent is, on the one hand, simply to tell the tale—which she does with clarity and an impressive amount of detail—and on the other to ask if there is any clue as to why New Zealand, of all places, should have become one of the first and few countries on earth to take such an uncompromising stand against the wilder uses of the energy released by the splitting of the atom?

            Of course, as everyone knows, it was Rutherford, the boy from Brightwater, Nelson, who split the atom in the first place and that alone, even without his overseeing of the progress of nuclear science in his own country, makes the subject one which many New Zealanders feel they have a special relationship with (see Alan Brunton’s Moonshine); perhaps in the same way some may have a faintly proprietorial feeling towards the mountain, Everest, that another favoured son (allegedly) was the first to climb. Rutherford did not ever return to his home country to live but he did despatch one of his acolytes in his place and this man, another Ernest, Marsden, is a major character in Ms Priestley’s book.

Marsden, a student of Rutherford’s at the University of Manchester was, on ER’s recommendation, appointed in 1915 professor of physics at Victoria University College in Wellington; in 1926 he became the first permanent secretary at the then brand new Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, the DSIR, a position he held for more than twenty years; during which time he championed the development of nuclear sciences in New Zealand. The initial focus of the DSIR was not upon nuclear science but upon agriculture; but Marsden, a restless, energetic and meddlesome man, with a powerful desire to play a part on the world stage, did not let that restrict his activities.

It’s fascinating to read, in the middle part of the book, about the struggle between Marsden and his successor at the DSIR, Bill Hamilton, over the direction research should take in the 1950s and 60s. Hamilton, a dour man, lacking Marsden’s volatility and charisma, nevertheless held strong to a belief that the country’s best interests lay in the development of its agriculture, and that it did not need nuclear reactors so long as there were enough sources of energy elsewhere; while Marsden continued strenuously to advocate whatever the latest nuclear fashion in the larger world might have been.

It isn’t the case that Marsden acted alone, or that he lacked supporters. At all times, right up to and even beyond the discovery in the late 1960s of the Maui gas fields off Taranaki, the possibility that New Zealand would build nuclear reactors to generate electricity did, as they say in Parliament, lie upon the table. It’s sobering to look at the map reproduced here, showing twenty possible sites, north of Auckland, on both coasts, where such a station might be built; and in the event two actual places, Oyster Point on the interior south western shore of the Kaipara Harbour, and South Head at its tip, were identified as viable locations for such a plant.

This was in the mid to late 1960s, when the intent was to use the power so generated to feed the growing appetite for electricity in the city of Auckland; others, including Hamilton, supported an alternative plan, which was adopted, of laying a cable across Cook Strait and thereby bringing hydro-electric power north from the various schemes in the South Island. There were costs to the environment (I nearly wrote ‘landscape’) incurred in the building of those dams; yet imagine if we now had an aging nuclear reactor leaking, as it likely would be, radioactivity into the Kaipara?

This is a comprehensive and meticulously researched book, developed from the author’s PhD thesis at Rutherford’s alma mater, the University of Canterbury at Christchurch. It includes a particularly good summary of the testing of nuclear weapons in the Pacific by the US, the UK and France, with comprehensive logs of all such explosions. New Zealand’s close relationship with the UK nuclear industry, both for military and so-called peaceful purposes, is a focus throughout: it is alarming to read that there were once plans to detonate British bombs on New Zealand’s sub-Antarctic Antipodes Islands; or in the Kermadecs; and of the planned use of the thermal bores at Wairaki in the manufacture of heavy water for use in reactors here, in Australia or in the UK.

New Zealand’s even closer relationship with Australia on nuclear matters is explored in depth, as is the steady brain drain of New Zealand born scientists overseas, to work in Australia, Canada, the UK and, particularly during the earlier stages of the Manhattan Project, in the US too. A New Zealander, Charles Watson-Munro, who had been on nuclear reactor projects (ZEEP and GLEEP respectively) in Canada and the UK, became in 1955 head of the Australian Atomic Energy Commission and oversaw the construction there of the heavy water moderated, uranium enriched research reactor at Lucas Heights in Sydney—still the sole facility of its kind in Australasia.

One of the physicists who remained home was Jim McCahon, an important contributor to Priestley’s research. McCahon as a young man took part, in the mid-1940s, in two survey voyages prospecting for uranium up and down the West Coast of the South Island on the evocatively named New Golden Hind; in one of the many fine photographs in the book he’s shown on board ship with a number of others, including Minister of Works Bob Semple wearing an elegant linen suit and a Homburg hat. The New Golden Hind found traces of the element in beach sand but not in large enough quantities to be commercially viable. Later, in the 1950s, deposits were discovered in Westland, setting off a uranium rush which didn’t, however, in the end lead to the uncovering of any exploitable deposits either.

Jim McCahon, though Ms Priestley doesn’t say so, was the younger brother of painter Colin McCahon; both men in their later years became actively anti-nuclear in their sentiments; Colin expressing his feelings in paint and Jim more directly: he was the radiation safety officer on HMNZS Otago when the frigate was sent in 1973 to Mururoa Atoll to monitor the French testing there, and felt he was one of the few on board who, rather than just dutifully following government orders, actively showed his opposition to those sinister experiments. The mushroom cloud was, he wrote, as if describing one of his brother’s Muriwai paintings, a tall spindly stem with a flattened bob on top, a reddish brown colour against the surrounding white clouds.

Perhaps the most salutary thing about this book is the way it shows that twentieth century New Zealand government decisions about nuclear issues, both military and commercial, were nearly always taken, not on principle, but for pragmatic reasons. We are not, it turns out, a people wedded in our souls to benign usage of potentially lethal technologies, nor do we oppose such things out of some kind of innate moral purity; rather the reason we—or should I say our leaders—have not adopted these technologies is simply because we have not needed them. This is not to say that a pragmatic approach is wrong: it is pragmatism, precisely, that underlies our refusal to allow nuclear weapons, and nuclear powered ships, to moor in our harbours and sail our waters.

Equally, if it does become necessary in some decision-maker’s mind to build nuclear power stations in New Zealand, chances are the attempt will be made so to do. When I was at school in the late 1950s and early 1960s we were taught, and believed, that such a step was not just desirable, it was inevitable. Today’s children may be taught the opposite; and it could seem that the nuclear-free ethos is now so deeply embedded in the New Zealand psyche that it is somehow permanently there. This book shows how times can and do change and that, in matters nuclear, as in other fields, the price of liberty is, indeed, eternal vigilance. 

MARTIN EDMOND is a New Zealand-born writer who lives in Sydney. His books include: Dark Night: Walking with McCahon (Auckland University Press, 2011); Zone of the Marvellous: In Search of the Antipodes (Auckland University Press, 2009); and The Supply Party: Ludwig Becker on the Burke and Wills Expedition (East Street Publications, 2009).

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