Mad on Radium: New Zealand in the Atomic Age

Mad on Radium: New Zealand in the Atomic Age
By Rebecca Priestley
Auckland University Press, Auckland, 2012

New Zealand is known around the world for our nuclear-free stance – banning US ship visits, prohibiting uranium mining, selling ourselves to the world on our clean, green, nuclear-free image. But have we always been nuclear sceptics?’

In this engaging and accessible history, prize-winning author Rebecca Priestley reveals the alternative history of ‘nuclear New Zealand’ – a country where there was much enthusiasm for nuclear science and technology, from the first users of x-rays and radium in medicine; the young New Zealand physicists seconded to work on the Manhattan Project; support for the British bomb tests in the Pacific; plans for a heavy water plant at Wairakei; prospecting for uranium on the West Coast of the South Island; plans for a nuclear power station on the Kaipara Harbour; and thousands of scientists and medical professionals working with nuclear technology.

Priestley then considers the transition to ‘nuclear-free New Zealand’ policy in the 1980s. The change was dramatic: in the late 1970s, less than a decade before becoming so proudly nuclear-free, New Zealand was considering nuclear power to meet growing electricity demand in the North Island and the government was supporting a uranium prospecting programme on the West Coast of the South Island. But following the nuclear-free policy, anything with nuclear associations came under suspicion: taxi drivers referred to a science institute using a particle accelerator as ‘the bomb factory’ and Jools Topp of the Topp Twins refused radiation therapy for cancer, telling the doctors ‘I’m a lifelong member of Greenpeace, why would I let you irradiate me?’

By uncovering the long and rich history of New Zealanders’ engagement with the nuclear world and the roots of our nuclear-free identity, by leading us into popular culture, politics, medicine and science, Priestley reveals much about our culture’s evolving attitudes to science and technology and the world beyond New Zealand’s shores.

Buy this book now from Auckland University Press

Reviews and interviews:

You can listen to my interview with Veronika Meduna on Our Changing World, 27 September 2012, here

You can hear Harry Broad review Mad on Radium on Nine to Noon, 12 September 2012, here

‘Rebecca Priestley’s magnificent Mad on Radium: New Zealand in the Atomic Age deserves to be read by every thinking Kiwi.’
Bob Rigg, New Zealand Listener, 24 November 2012

‘Rebecca Priestley … has made an important contribution to nuclear history. She sets out to question New Zealand’s apparent opposition to nuclear power. Employing a wide variety of secondary and primary sources, including an impressive use of archival files from such agencies as the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, External Affairs and the National Radiation Laboratory, she has crafted a major revisionist history.’
Wayne Reynolds, Australian Historical Studies, Volume 44, Issue 2, June 2013 – pp. 315–316

‘[a] lively and informative study  … With accuracy, fairness and skill she traces how the enthusiasm for radioactive materials and nuclear energy, possibly beckoning a brave new world, soured towards denial, even condemnation of these technologies.’
Roderic Alley, Reviews in History, March 2013

Mad on Radium is a brilliant read, a deeply researched and thorough history of New Zealand in the atomic age and one that nicely contrasts the nightmare threat of nuclear weapons and outrageous Pacific weapons testing against the whimsy of the 1950s advertising world, which produced goods such as “uranium”-branded icecream, “atomic red” lipstick and “radium” polish.’
Paul Gorman, Your Weekend, The Press, 27 October 2012

‘ … this is the only comprehensive account of New Zealand’s nuclear story, documenting the way public attitudes have changed over the years. It is a work of considerable scholarship, based on a PhD study, but is easily accessible. As a popular columnist, Rebecca Priestley has the gift of making complex issues understandable, and the story she tells is fascinating.’ Read more …
Simon Nathan, SCOOP review of books

Mad on Radium is a work of scholarship … but it is also a popular history in the sense of being well-illustrated with editorial cartoons, advertisements and other popular evidence of early enthusiasm for radium and for nuclear power. … As an historian, Priestley has the commendable quality of not belittling or lampooning the hopes of past years. She keeps in check the temptation to satirise naïve beliefs about radium as a panacea or nuclear energy as entirely beneficial. The enthusiastic New Zealand reception of the 1960 visit by America’s first nuclear-powered submarine USSHalibut, may seem bizarre to us now, but it would be unhistorical to assume that anybody thought it was bizarre then. Read more …
Dr Nicholas Reid, Reid’s Reader


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