Russia’s war on Ukraine has brought the world closer to the possibility of nuclear war than it’s been in decades. But is New Zealand prepared for it?

The prospect of a nuclear war and its aftermath is too grim for most of us to consider. Governments around the world avoid the topic because they don’t want to scare people, and New Zealanders have no idea if there’s a national plan for it because it’s classified.  

But Otago University public health expert Professor Nick Wilson and catastrophic risk researcher Dr Matt Boyd say now is the very time we should be not only talking about how we would cope but planning for it too. And if not nuclear war this time around, then another global catastrophe. 

Wilson and Boyd, the director of Adapt Research, have teamed up to write about it in a report called ‘Sustained Resilience: The impact of nuclear war on New Zealand and how to mitigate catastrophe’.  

“If you look at the probability of these various catastrophes and multiplied that by the scale of harm then it’s been clear for a while that extreme pandemics, nuclear war and climate change have been the greatest threats for some time,” says Boyd. 

Boyd and Wilson explain the potential impacts of a nuclear war and how New Zealand would fare. While many experts say a nuclear war is unlikely, it can’t be ruled out. There are a lot of possible scenarios for how a nuclear war would play out, depending on whether one weapon is used or multiple weapons, and the response from other nuclear-armed countries. 

The greatest risks to New Zealand aren’t radiation or a massive drop in temperature – a so-called nuclear winter – instead, it’s the disruption to life and society caused by isolation that could last years, with shortages of essential items, says Wilson. 

“We’re far away and surrounded by ocean which has a very strong thermomodulatory impact and it buffers the climate a lot in New Zealand,” he says. 

“We’ve got a lot of protective features, but good planning should maybe consider both likely scenarios but also more extreme scenarios.” 

New Zealand’s food exports alone could feed four times its current population, but distribution could be jeopardised by shortages in diesel and machinery components. There’s also the question of fair distribution, says Wilson, if the financial system collapses. 

“You have to think about rationing systems or other ways to keep some type of economy working,” he says. 

Boyd and Wilson are calling for good planning for even the most severe scenarios, saying there is no sign that politicians have actively discussed any of the issues. 

“In the 1980s there was some work done on this,” says Boyd. “That was the last time that nuclear war was as salient as it is today for New Zealand.” 

At the time, there were suggestions of more funding to more closely research the impacts on New Zealand society. It never went ahead and because the National Risk Assessment and Risk Register are classified, the public don’t know what is being considered now. 

Boyd says the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the lack of preparation for a global shock. People need to know about the plan ahead of time, to avoid panic and a breakdown in social order.  

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Sharon Brettkelly is co-host of The Detail podcast.

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