The New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament and Arms Control Act 1987 was a landmark piece of legislation that sent shock waves round the nuclear powers of the world. Most New Zealanders are still enormously proud of it and politically it is as immune from repeal as if it were legislatively entrenched.
But most New Zealanders don't realise how little it actually does. It controls nuclear weapons siting and testing only up to 12 miles from shore, and prohibits nuclear powered ships only from entering our ports and harbours. But nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed ships can cruise along our coast with no restriction, there is no recognition of the need to protect our Exclusive Economic Zone, out to 200 miles, from nuclear materials. Equally there is no mention of vessels carrying nuclear waste or reprocessed nuclear fuel, because the reprocessing industry had still not gone global in 1987.
The bill was written in the summer after I first came to Parliament, as we were expecting one of the earliest shipments of highly hazardous wastes through the Tasman Sea on the Pacific Teal. That shipment concerned Parliament sufficiently that we passed a resolution that on the first sitting day in 1997 we passed a resolution that I moved, which read "That this House declared its opposition to the passage through the South Pacific of the Pacific Teal carrying high-level radioactive waste from France to Japan, which in the event of an accident would pose serious risks to this region's environment and fisheries. A party vote was called for and the resolution was passed 111 to 8, the only dissenting party being ACT. The first action of the new ACT party after it entered this Parliament was to vote against that resolution. The rest of us supported it.
Shipments of reprocessed nuclear fuel, purified plutonium fuel, reprocessed mixed oxide fuel and high level waste are now occurring internationally several times a year and projected to accelerate. So far they have avoided our economic zone, but there is no requirement on them to do so. New Zealand has called internationally for prior notification and consent for coastal states but has been denied. We have also called for proper liability and compensation provisions and those have not been forthcoming either.
Irradiated nuclear fuel originates from Japan's nuclear power reactors and is sent to France on British ships for reprocessing. This harmless sounding word 'reprocessing' in fact involves purifying and extracting uranium and weapons-grade plutonium, which is stockpiled in Japan. It is supposedly for power station fuel but is usable in weapons. That in itself should hugely concern every citizen of the world.
In the process, enormous quantities of nuclear waste, much of it very high level waste, is created. For example, all the equipment that has been used to handle the highly radioactive substances is contaminated and becomes waste itself. Some of the waste is discharged to air and water, some is stored in Europe, and some is returned to Japan for storage - and I say storage because there is no known safe method of disposal of highly radioactive waste.
New Zealand rejected nuclear power and weapons technology two decades ago because of the hazards they pose to humanity and the environment. This reprocessing technology greatly increases that hazard, both because of the higher level of radioactivity created because of the volumes involved, and because it is transported around the globe and vulnerable to collisions, fires and other breaches of containment.
When this technology was last discussed in the New Zealand Parliament some suggested that recycling of nuclear waste to produce a profitable material was a desirable thing and should be welcomed by the Greens. What a sick joke. Reprocessing generates a waste volume that can be 189 times as large as the original waste material. Hardly a sustainable solution.
So what would happen to our seas and shoreline if an accident occurred? Let's first dispose of the idea that such an accident is likely. Of course it's not. No-one would take the risk if it was. But it is not impossible. The containers in which the glassified waste is housed are very strong. But collisions do occur, shipwrecks do occur, worst of all fires do occur, and under these circumstances release of the contents is possible.
The possible outcomes are so various that I will paint only a couple. A fierce fire would raise a plume of intense radioactivity that would drift with the prevailing wind - quite possibly on to our coast, threatening the lives and health of us and our children's children. A collision, rupture of containment and sinking of the ship would release radioactivity steadily into the marine environment over centuries making our fish inedible.
No environmental impact study is done by the country of origin or the shipping firm. No liability is accepted, and there is no provision for compensation because nuclear materials are not covered in the Maritime Transport Act which provides such liability and compensation clauses for other types of hazardous material on shipping.
The Resource Management Act provides penalties for spills at sea. But can you imagine us prosecuting British Nuclear fuels in a New Zealand court? I do not think so.
That is why this bill bans such shipments from our 200 mile zone, and at the same time extends the coverage of the original Act to the full 200 miles.
Rumour has it that telegrams are flying. The nuclear powers of the world are not pleased. And this is not because they would find it difficult to keep out of our waters - they have done so far. But they are worried about the domino effect. Just like in Vietnam, they are worried that if New Zealand passes this law other countries may do the same, and the freedom to endanger the high seas with highly hazardous cargo may little by little be restricted. Well, I think that would be a good thing.
The more interesting opposition comes from the claim that this bill breaches our obligations under the International Convention on the Law of the Sea. That Treaty does two things and it is ambiguous.
First of all, the treaty gives countries a right, in fact a duty, to protect the environment and fisheries in their economic zones - up to 200 miles. That makes good sense - who should look after the health of these waters if not the nearest coastal state?
It also prevents nations from exploiting this right to wrongfully restrict trade and the passage of ships going about their lawful business. The freedom of the high seas it used to be called. The Treaty calls it the right of innocent passage. A worthy principle.
But what happens when the two principles conflict? When the cargo being carried has the potential to devastate the environment and fisheries the coastal state is trying to protect? Innocent is taken to mean not intending war, but I suggest this meaning is now a little out of date.
How can a cargo of the most hazardous stuff on earth be called innocent? Three years ago this debate was occurring in the discussions around the law of the sea. It doesn't seem to have got very far. But sooner or later the nations of the world are going to have to come to terms with the fact that you cannot protect your environment and your fisheries if someone else is free to cart plutonium through them, which could potentially be released.
I suggest we come to terms with it sooner. I suggest New Zealand takes a lead on this issue, passes domestic legislation and works to have the definition of innocent amended in international law so that the right to protect the sea and its creatures and its huge economic resources is paramount.
I am going to move that this bill be considered by the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee. I fully expect, as the Government will say, that the bill will not be passed in its present form. Members' bills, even Government bills, rarely are. But I look forward to debating the precedents that this bill establishes and I hope that it will provoke a good debate about priorities in the law of the sea. Are we here to protect the nuclear waste industry or the sea?