The Berkeley nuclear-free zone has had unfortunate consequences

The year was 1986. A large portion of the world population could not remember a time before the Cold War and the looming threat of mutually assured destruction. Making matters worse was that the Soviet Union and United States had been competing in a massive arms race, leading to the stockpiling of 60,000 nuclear warheads globally. The world had never seen this large of a stockpile before and has not since. These weapons were also more than a thousand times more destructive than the two bombs that had leveled two Japanese cities 41 years before. How many people would die if even one of these weapons were launched? How many weapons would be launched in a war? How much destruction could that cause? People were justifiably afraid of nuclear weapons. In Berkeley, this led to the creation of the Nuclear Free Berkeley Act of 1986.

The act passed as a citywide ballot initiative in November 1986. Even though the Berkeley nuclear-free zone is one of the most famous nuclear-free zones in the country, it was not the first. All over the country, towns and cities established themselves as nuclear-free zones as early as 1978. Davis, California, established itself as a nuclear-free zone two years before Berkeley in 1984, and Oakland followed Berkeley with its own measure in 1988. Since these cities ended up borrowing language from other towns’ nuclear-free zone laws, many of these laws looked similar. For Berkeley, language was added for a nuclear reactor that once sat in Etcheverry Hall and UC Berkeley’s relationship with the Livermore and Los Alamos weapons laboratories.

Unfortunately, many aspects of both the Berkeley law and the other laws turned out to be superficial and unenforceable. In 1990, a federal court ruled that Oakland’s ordinance was invalid because a city ordinance could not interfere with “the Federal Government’s constitutional authority over national defense and atomic energy.” This specifically dealt with the federal government using the Port of Oakland. Fortunately, a similar lawsuit was not brought against the city of Berkeley, because it is very likely that the federal government could easily sue and invalidate portions of this law if necessary. The Berkeley law also tried to put restrictions on what work UC Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory could perform, but since they are state and federal entities, Berkeley cannot enforce municipal regulations on them.

Despite the Berkeley ordinance’s limited impact on the nuclear arms race, the law had several unintended consequences. By design, the law has restricted the city’s investments and contracts; the city cannot invest or do business with any entity that “knowingly engages in work for nuclear weapons.” Under some interpretations, the city cannot even buy federal Treasury bonds since the federal government “knowingly engages in work for nuclear weapons.” Even companies that haven’t directly worked with nuclear weapons have found it difficult to work with the city of Berkeley. In 2008, the Berkeley Public Library tried to work with 3M on developing a new self-checkout system using radio-frequency identification technology. Unfortunately, because of the law’s loose definition of “work for nuclear weapons,” 3M could not certify that it has never engaged in “work for nuclear weapons.” Working with 3M violated the Nuclear Free Berkeley Act, so City Council needed to grant a waiver for every contract with 3M, adding an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy and leading to wasted time and money.

Finally, the law has also adversely affected the relationships between Berkeley Lab, UC Berkeley and the city of Berkeley. The law specifically restricts the city from granting contracts to either UC Berkeley or Berkeley Lab. As with 3M, in order for the city to work with the university or lab, City Council needs to grant a waiver for every single instance, even if it has nothing to do with nuclear technology. Examples of such instances include when the city wanted to work on developing a cleaner transportation system, when it wanted to perform studies on developing a clean energy microgrid and when it wanted to evaluate the economic effect of the soda tax on the city.

When asked about the nuclear-free zone, most people only think of the fading signs around the city limits. However, the law in its present form costs the city money, restricts city investments and slows down city projects, even if they have nothing to do with nuclear weapons or other technology. It is time to update the law so that the city can work with the lab and university on topics ranging from improving public health to combating climate change. An updated version of the law can still take a stand against nuclear weapons, but it should not harm the city. A new law could still make it illegal to invest directly in nuclear weapons or prevent the city from working with people and businesses that work specifically on nuclear weapons. With the end of the Cold War, Berkeley could even go as far as calling for the elimination of nuclear weapons without the negative economic impacts. Unlike a nuclear blast, the law should have little collateral damage.

Andrew Greenop is a recent campus doctoral graduate in the department of nuclear engineering.