Continued debate on Nuclear Free Berkeley Act examines its legacy, relevance

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Sally Dowd/File

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Thirty-two years after the passing of the Nuclear Free Berkeley Act, activists have begun to call into question its efficacy.

The Nuclear Free Berkeley Act, passed in 1986, prohibited the creation and development of nuclear weapons and reactors within Berkeley’s city limits, in addition to preventing the city from entering into contracts or making investments with any organization affiliated with nuclear weapons production.

While the law has overreaching coverage, former Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory researcher and former Berkeley City Councilmember Gordon Wozniak has been working on addendums to the law that would increase Berkeley’s opposition to nuclear weapons and research.

Wozniak, who was working with then-campus doctoral candidate Andrew Greenop, submitted the rewritten law to the city attorney’s office in December 2017, hoping to gather enough signatures for it to be placed on the ballot for 2018. The amendments, which Wozniak began working on in 2011, would have allowed the city to invest in U.S. Treasury bonds and to contract researchers from UC Berkeley, which was prohibited by the act regardless of what field the researcher worked under.

“(The) ordinance … made it very difficult to make it have university and city work together,” Wozniak said. “(The) Peace and Justice Commission had to sign off just so kids in Berkeley can get better reading skills during the summer (with UC Berkeley personnel). (It’s a) lot of bureaucratic stuff.”

On June 18, 1986, a Daily Californian headline read, “Nuclear-free Berkeley on November Ballot.” According to the article, citizens were “disgruntled over the failure of the U.S. Congress to implement a weapons freeze” and began a petition to classify Berkeley as a nuclear-free zone — the Nuclear Free Berkeley Act had gathered 2,400 public signatures by the end of 1986. It was placed on the voters’ ballot and later passed.

The 1986 citizen advocacy efforts were part of a national anti-nuclear movement, spurred by increased public awareness of the government’s nuclear operations. Berkeley’s nuclear-free status came after about 100 U.S. cities, including Chico and Davis, passed similar ordinances, according to a past Daily Cal article.

At about this time, both Los Alamos National Laboratory and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which were at the time dedicated to nuclear research and designing nuclear weapons, came under heavy criticism from the public.

Women Strike for Peace, a national activist organization, joined numerous protests at the Livermore facility beginning in the 1980s, as well as at the bombs’ test sites in Nevada. These events resulted in hundreds being arrested, according to written accounts by Berkeley activist Alice Sachs Hamburg.

According to John German, a Berkeley Lab spokesperson, no nuclear weapons research occurs at Berkeley Lab today.

“Lawrence Berkeley National Lab does not conduct research on nuclear weapons, nor do we operate a nuclear reactor,” German said in an email. “The research we do here is either at a fundamental physics level, looking into subatomic particles and the elemental states of matter, or in applications such as nuclear medicine and radiation detection—these activities are explicitly excluded from (allowed by) the original Berkeley Nuclear Free Act.”

Los Alamos Lab has, since 1973, been allowed to diversify its mission to include alternative energy, according to the background paper. It is now managed by the UC Board of Regents, in conjunction with the Texas A&M University System and the Battelle Memorial Institute, after a contract renewal with the U.S. Department of Energy in July 2018.

A nuclear reactor formerly located in Etcheverry Hall and managed by the university was also decommissioned in 1991, according to the UC Berkeley Department of Nuclear Engineering’s website. Greenop characterized the reactor as being too expensive to maintain.

Believing that much of the campus’s denuclearization has happened without the act’s influence, Wozniak and Greenop worked to write amendments to the existing law and created a public petition, but did not gather enough signatures from Berkeley residents.

Wozniak said he hopes to reinvigorate the petition for the 2020 general elections. Greenop, who left the project after graduating, said he still believes in its message.

“Most of the work is already laid out,” Greenop said. “(There’s) no reason why someone can’t restart the process again.”

Contact Anna Ho at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @anna_j_ho.

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