Nuclear-free New Zealand

Page 2 – Nuclear testing in the Pacific

After the Second World War the United States, along with its French and British allies, frequently tested nuclear weapons in the Pacific region. In the 1950s New Zealand military personnel observed British and American nuclear tests in Australia, the Pacific and Nevada, and vessels of the Royal New Zealand Navy served as weather ships for British tests in the Indian Ocean. In 1963 the British, American and Soviet governments agreed to ban atmospheric tests. New Zealand also signed this treaty – but India, China and France were among those countries which did not.

New Zealand was involved in ongoing protest over French nuclear testing from the 1966, when France began testing nuclear weapons in French Polynesia. Mururoa (or Moruroa) Atoll became the focal point for both the tests and opposition to them. Greenpeace vessels sailed into the test site in 1972, and in May the following year the New Zealand and Australian governments took France to the International Court of Justice in an attempt to ban the tests. France ignored the court’s interim ruling that they must cease testing.

The third Labour government, led by Norman Kirk, responded by sending two navy frigates, HMNZS Otago and Canterbury, into the test area, with a Cabinet minister on board. Kirk put all his Cabinet ministers’ names into a hat and drew out that of Fraser Colman, the minister of immigration and mines. Some insiders unkindly suggested that the lowly ranked Colman’s name had been written on every slip of paper.

The opposition National Party declined Kirk’s invitation to send a representative on the protest voyage. National’s leader, Jack Marshall, saw the despatch of the frigate as ‘irresponsible’ – this ‘futile and empty gesture’ would only inflame the situation. Marshall’s preference was to hold France to account through the International Court of Justice.

Colman sailed from Auckland on 28 June aboard Otago, which carried a crew of 242. A month later those on board witnessed the first atmospheric test. Colman transferred to Canterbury when it arrived to relieve Otago, and he and the crew saw the second French atmospheric test on Mururoa. These protests achieved some success: in 1974 a new French president, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, ordered that the tests move underground. With testing continuing until 1996, however, Mururoa remained a focus of anti-nuclear protest.

How to cite this page

'Nuclear testing in the Pacific', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 29-Jun-2023

Community contributions

3 comments have been posted about Nuclear testing in the Pacific

What do you know?

Fredy Champagne

Posted: 01 Jul 2013

Searching for info on all the different nuclear protest yachts involved in these protests in French Polynesia. We are also restoring the first nuclear protest yacht, the Golden Rule, with Veterans for Peace in California.

judy walsh

Posted: 27 Jun 2013

I have some negatives and great photos of a test at the atoll. These would be of one of the first tests. My father in law left them to me when he passed away. If you are interested I could email you a photo. Regards Judy