Steve Braunias continues his series on preparing for Doomsday by taking a guided tour of the underground Civil Defence bunker beneath the Beehive – and discovers a resistance to the idea or even the mention of a nuclear threat.
We met in the lobby of Bowen House in downtown Wellington, and shook hands. There was no small talk. We set off at brisk pace and I could hear the faint opening strains of the theme to classic TV series Get Smart playing in my head. Civil Defence director Sarah Stuart-Black even kind of looked a bit like Agent 99 with her dark hair and stylish black dress, but in fact she was The Chief. I wore a black suit and its thinning contours gave me a certain resemblance to Maxwell Smart.
Together we walked beneath the Earth. A tunnel built underneath Bowen St led us to the Beehive. We stopped at a green door. It was made of strengthened metal. The Get Smart theme was now fairly blaring in my ears as The Chief unlocked the door that allowed rare access to the holy of holies in New Zealand homeland security – the underground Civil Defence bunker, in the sub-basement of the Beehive, perfectly round, a kind of tomb, sealed and windowless, built in 1969, exactly at the time Get Smart was broadcasting its parody of covert espionage and the threat of nuclear annihilation.
To enter was to step into a time tunnel. The whole thing was outlandish, ingenious, a beautifully restored antique. It had ancient clocks, ancient leather chairs, ancient tubs of coffee. It was Get Smart, it was Austin Powers, it was groovy, thrilling, serious. It was quite hot. The aircon only activates during staff exercises or when the bunker swings into action in the event of some fresh disaster. It's served as the national crisis management centre since 2001 – this is where the response to the Christchurch and Kaikoura earthquakes were managed, with about 60 staff from Civil Defence and other agencies on shift at any one time for up to three months. Prime Minister John Key was briefed here during those disasters. "That," said Stuart-Black, "was his chair." We were in a meeting room which had three lovely old wooden desks pushed together, and surrounded by cracked black leather chairs with chrome legs. The desks were stained with cup rings. No time for coasters in an emergency.
The single corridor was in the shape of a ring, too. It went round and round and round. There were two green doors, one to the Bowen House, one to the Beehive. "Otherwise," said Stuart-Black, "you could walk around in a circle for days." Round and round and round…The risks of going slowly mad in the underground bunker seemed very real; there was a door marked COUNSELLING SERVICES, and inside was a low single bed, for the mental patient to lie down and stare up at the ceiling. Another door was marked DEFENCE FORCE RESTRICTED PLACE. IT IS AN OFFENCE PUNISHABLE BY IMPRISONMENT TO PROCEED BEYOND THIS NOTICE.
There was a cafeteria with green vinyl chairs set around six round tables. There were huge baskets of ballpoint pens, and staplers, and staple removers. There were very many canisters of Ductol handwash.
There were bunk beds! Ten of them, in the ultimate sleep-over; the gang even have their own torches, and a form to sign in when they clamber up the little wooden stairs, slip inside the sheets, and sleep beneath a rough army blanket. There were drawers packed with toothpaste and ear-plugs. I opened another drawer, and said to Stuart-Black, "What am I going to find in here? Condoms?"
She turned, and walked back into the corridor. We continued her guided tour, round and round and round…There was the big screen showing the latest earthquakes identified by GeoNet; New Zealand gets around 20,000 quakes per year, most unfelt, and the latest on the screen registered a magnitude 2.6, depth 10km, 15km east of Seddon in Marlborough. No one needed to bother about that one. The bunker was totally empty.
There was the whistling Zip, there was half a tub of caked and lumpy instant coffee, there was a white board with a felt-tip pen attached to a piece of string but the top had come off and the ink was dry.
O strange and fascinating bunker. If it seems absurd, it also feels secure. Nothing can get to it. Even daylight is prohibited. It's a fortress. It's got a generator, cupboards stocked with long-life food, and 100,000 litres of water. It's the ultimate fall-out shelter on New Zealand soil, and a reminder that Civil Defence was created in 1959 as a response to nuclear threat. A government white paper at the time noted, "The safeguarding of the civilian population against the nuclear threat must, for the first time, become an essential part of national defence plans…Radioactivity knows neither frontiers nor distance." Martin Rawlinson's 1971 MA thesis was on the development of civil defence; he stated unequivocally, "The nuclear threat was its primary concern."
But to think of the bunker as any kind of fall-out shelter is to see a mirage. To think of Civil Defence as offering any kind of specific response to the nuclear threat is even more illusory. The very strangest thing about this weird space beneath the Earth is that it's all dressed up for the challenges and nightmares of Doomsday, but is resistant to even talking about the possibility and consequences of an attack. Whatever happened to "the safeguarding of the civilian population against the nuclear threat"?
Comically, the one person we saw walking the other way as we approached the Civil Defence underground bunker was Civil Defence minister Kris Faafoi. "Minister!", I called out. He near jumped out of his skin. We'd talked on the phone a week or so earlier, when he went out of his way to refuse to even say the words "nuclear threat"; when we bumped into each other, I said maliciously, "How's the nuclear threat going?" He said he had somewhere to go, and rushed off as fast as his little legs could carry him.
When we spoke on the phone, Faafoi explained that Civil Defence was primarily set up to deal with natural hazards – earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions and other hazards from land or sea. I said, "These are all catastrophes which can cause massive loss of life, and damage. If that's the common factor, what about the nuclear threat? Does Civil Defence ever discuss the potential of fall-out, for example?"
He said, "The…the… situation you outline there I think in the first instance would probably be monitored by the Defence Force. Crossing fingers that would never eventuate, the national security system would kick into force pretty quickly. I'm sure Civil Defence would be involved if we went down that road."
Cross fingers! Good grief. Yes, that'll work as a nuclear deterrent. The nervousness and reluctance to address a fairly big radiating elephant in the room is even extended to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, which has ultimate responsibility in the event of a nuclear incident. The department's nifty little National Security Systems Handbook drones, "The national security system takes a particular interest in risks that have unusual features of scale, nature, intensity, or possible consequences....[and] challenges for nationwide law and order." Quick, to the word search: not a single reference to the word "nuclear".
But any challenge to "nationwide law and order" is a Civil Defence issue. I asked Faafoi, "Is there any thinking at Civil Defence about how to protect this country and its citizenry from a nuclear incident?"
He said, "We are primarily prepared for the likes of natural hazards but if there needed to be mass movement of people in response to some...uh...some...some form of risk, that could be through the Civil Defence system."
I asked, "What do you mean, 'some form of risk'?"
Faafoi said, "Oh, look, um, obviously there are other risks. For example the one that you've mentioned, which I think and hope would be a very small chance of...of...of eventuating. The Civil Defence system is geared for natural hazards but the system as it stands is well set-up I guess for a host of scenarios that threaten New Zealand if they weren't natural hazards."
By now I just wanted to get the minister of Civil Defence to let the word "nuclear" pass his lips, so I asked, "What are these other risks, exactly?"
He said, "Oh well I think you mentioned one already. But it's not within my remit go beyond natural hazards."
I asked, "Why are you so shy or scared about even mentioning the word 'nuclear'? As Minister of Civil Defence, you must have been in discussions where you've said the word out loud."
He said, "Well, while Civil Defence is part of the natural security system, depending on the situation, it would be other agencies that would lead the response, and Civil Defence would then be able to kick in...."
Speak no evil.
Public safety consultant Steve Glassey is familiar with the underground bunker. He's attended meetings in his previous roles in emergency management with the Ministry of Social Development, and served on a Civil Defence emergency management steering committee. He's now an outspoken critic of Civil Defence, and its distancing from responding to the nuclear threat.
"It's just one of the many threats that threaten the New Zealand population, and we've got a ministry of Civil Defence that doesn't do civil defence," he said. "It's ludicrous. It's like saying we have a Ministry of Foreign Affairs that doesn't do foreign affairs."
Glassey has a catchy term for the nuclear threat: he calls it "the forgotten tsunami".
In an article published on LinkedIn, Glassey noted that the Ministry of Civil Defence was "created for the purpose of protecting the civilian population from the effects of nuclear war". As early as the 1960s, though, and certainly by the time the ministry had its own purpose-built underground shelter built beneath the Beehive, the priorities had shifted to natural hazards.
Glassey cites a 2007 Civil Defence report which catalogued the major threats to New Zealand life and property. It includes earthquakes, volcanic activity, landslides, tsunamis, flood, snow, drought, wildfires, pandemics, and climate change. "Tsunami by this time had become a highly perceived threat by the public and politicians through witnessing the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami," Glassey writes. "The reality was that the actual risk had never changed, only the perceived risk." The 2007 report makes no mention of the nuclear threat. "Simply put," he concluded, "nuclear war is our forgotten tsunami."
We spoke on the phone after Glassey had dropped his daughter off to play soccer. He parked up, and said, "We didn't care about tsunamis until 2004. You go back to the 1960s, when the world was very close to having a nuclear exchange, but 50 years on, we find we're in the same if not a worse position than the height of the Cold War, and yet there's been little preparation in New Zealand around this threat. It's like we've forgotten it existed.
"I don't think it's a matter of having to create a new super-agency to deal with nuclear threat, but it's part of good emergency management, and good risk assessment. Civil Defence is supposed to have an all-hazards approach, and this is one of those hazards that there should be a plan for."
Well, there's no doubting that nuclear threat qualifies as a hazard. A missile exchange in the northern hemisphere would create some kind of nuclear winter in New Zealand.
"Radioactivity knows neither frontiers nor distance," as the Government's white paper put it, pithily and accurately, in 1958. But the problem with anticipating risk is imagining danger. Glassey has form in this regard; in 2014, he addressed an Asia-Pacific conference for senior national security officers, and entertained or baffled his audience with a remarkably lurid speech.
It began, "Sometimes the best way to understand a threat is not to clinically or academically dissect it, but to be emotionally immersed in it. I ask that you clear your minds and let your imagination drift away, and let the story I am about to tell you, unfold in your dreamful mind."
He then presented a fiction designed to freak out the nightmare mind. Glassey set his drama in Victoria, Australia. Bush fires are raging out of control. And then a bomb goes off in a sports building with heavy loss of life. Afghani Muslim extremists, calling themselves FLAME, take the credit. And then FLAME threatens to bring down any aircraft attempting to control the bush fires. And then it transpires FLAME are in fact a few embittered ex-military Australian blokes...The point of the story, Glassey told his audience, is that "disaster terrorists" might one day "strike communities at their most vulnerable". Thank you and good night.
The thought occurred that Glassey was just another panic merchant. "Look, I'm not suggesting for one minute that people run out tomorrow and start stockpiling and building shelters in the back yard," he said, in regard to New Zealand's vulnerability to a nuclear winter. "But I think government should have some preparations in this space."
Glassey is concerned that Civil Defence is acting irresponsibly, and has not only forgotten the nuclear threat but also the governing principle that led to its creation.
"There was a risk, and that's the whole reason Civil Defence was born. But we're not doing anything now. Should we get ready? Yes, we should. Because isn't that what Civil Defence is supposed to be? Isn't it there to protect the population from these risks?"
I asked, "All this talk about nuclear risks - who's the enemy?"
"Everything from North Korea to Russia to China," he said. "I mean - I'm not a geopolitical specialist. But to say we have no risk would be naïve."
Civil Defence director Sarah Stuart-Black said, "This is the nerve centre." We were in a very important room inside the underground bunker. There were pods of desks, many computer screens, no shortage of staple removers. Looking over it was the bridge, which kind of served as the central nerve of the nerve centre. Stuart-Black had stood there in the Kaikoura earthquake, arriving at the bunker about an hour after it struck Wellington just before midnight; she described things as "unsettling", and confused. I was staying in the capital that night, in a hotel that swayed from side to side, which certainly felt quite unsettling. From my window I saw cars driving to the top of Mt Victoria to get away from a tsunami that never happened. Stuart-Black said, "The reason we think that the impacts from the tsunami was not more substantial was a combination of it being low tide at the time, and the uplift of the sea floor being four metres. The combination of those two things actually probably saved lives."
The event was marked a Mode Three that night in the bunker. The next and highest level, Mode Four, is for a major catastrophe, and a national state of emergency. It was time to bring up the unmentionable words, the Mode Four subject that Civil Defence must not say out loud. I asked Stuart-Black, "Do you ever talk about potential nuclear hazards?"
She said, "What we talk about is managing the consequences of any emergency. In the 1990s there was a view you should plan for each particular kind of hazard – you should have a snow plan, a flood plan."
I said, "Now you have an all-hazards plan. Is that inclusive of nuclear threat?"
"Well," she said, and here she was less The Chief and more nimble Agent 99, dancing on a pin, "it doesn't exclude it. It basically says what are the things we would need to have in place if we were going to manage any kind of national level response. There would be some particular complexities and a whole range of scenarios, but what we are trying to do is make sure we have best use of our resources to be able to make an effective response."
To interview Stuart-Black was to listen to screeds of that kind of boring, finessed Wellington speak. There was a brief pause in the static after I asked her, "Is there any specific plan in the event of some nuclear hazard?"
"Not by us," she said, speaking plain English.
I said, "Why not? Isn't that why Civil Defence was created in the first place?"
She reverted to type again, and said, "We operate under the 2002 Act, that says we should be planning for consequences, that there should be functional plans for responding to power outages or where there's issues of houses being destroyed. It doesn't matter what's destroyed the house; it's the fact that a house has been destroyed, and therefore what do we need to do about it.…We provide generic planning for all hazards."
A message, then, to the nation: it doesn't matter what has destroyed your house.
Stuart-Black was a model of bureaucratic efficiency. Here was someone who no doubt understood pathways and goals and objectives. But she seemed rather lacking in a quality that you might reasonably expect to find in the director of Civil Defence. There just wasn't much about her that was reassuring.
I said, "Generic planning aside, what does Civil Defence provide in the event of some sort of nuclear threat?"
She said, "We would expect New Zealanders to take responsibility for themselves in the event of any emergency. Close to 90 per cent of New Zealanders know the types of hazards that can result in emergencies. One of our big campaigns has been about having a plan. For example, sitting down at breakfast with the family, and having a conversation about where to meet up should an emergency happen."
I said, "Isn't that putting it back on people? Shouldn't the ministry be doing a lot more protecting?"
She said, "I think at the front end, each of us have a responsibility to ourselves, and our families and our households, to be prepared for any emergency. Our role is to co-ordinate across a number of government agencies and NGOs that are all part of that response effort. But the reality is New Zealanders need to look after themselves and their families first."
I said, "Whatever. Let's continue with the tour." We walked round and round and round. She mentioned a supply of long-lasting food in the bunker. Determined to think of the bunker as a shelter from the fall-out storm, with its 100,000 litres of water and its torches and its bunkbeds, I asked if I could have a look at the food stockpile. "It's in a cupboard," said Stuart-Black, "and I don't have the key."