Can Berkeley live with not being nuclear-free?

When Berkeley voters were asked in 1986 to make the city a nuclear-free zone, Gordon Wozniak was among the thousands who cast his ballot in support of the measure.

It was the height of the Cold War and Ronald Reagan was president. The United States and the Soviet Union were racing to see which country could produce the best  — and most — nuclear weapons. Missiles were pointed at each others’ capitals.

But that was then, and this is now. Wozniak, currently a city council member, is proposing to scuttle parts of the 25-year old Nuclear Free Berkeley Act, particularly the parts that prohibit the city from investing in the federal government.

In the next month, he plans to submit a proposal to the city council severely limiting the scope of the law.

“The Cold War is over,” said Wozniak. “There is no longer a Soviet Union. Our nuclear arsenal is down to about 2,000 warheads. The trend is in the right direction. We should declare victory and abolish the nuclear free zone. It has accomplished its purpose.”

The law prohibits Berkeley from doing any business with corporations involved in nuclear energy unless the city passes a special exemption. This has proven onerous and even ridiculous at times, said Wozniak. For example, a few years ago the city wanted to hire Dan Kammen, a UC Berkeley professor, to consult about energy issues. But the city could not legally hire him since his employer, UC, manages Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which designs nuclear weapons (Kammen is currently the World Bank’s chief technical specialist on renewable energy). It holds true for any UC professor the city wants to work with.

In 2009, Berkeley Public Library wanted to sign a contract with 3M to service its self-check out book scanners, but had to seek a dispensation  since the company refused to sign a nuclear-free disclosure form required by the law. The Peace and Justice Commission denied the waiver, and the library had to appeal to the city council.

“It increases the bureaucracy,” said Wozniak. “It makes it difficult and it takes longer for what should be routine transactions.”

The law also means that Berkeley can’t buy short- or long-term Treasury Bonds from the federal government, which hampers the city’s investment possibilities. But the city can accept funds from the federal government for housing, block grants, transportation and other measures. Wozniak thinks that is hypocritical.

Gordon Wozniak

“We make this funny distinction which says we can’t invest city funds in government treasuries because government is evil,” he said. “But we take money to pave the streets, provide housing. It’s kind of strange. There is no consistency.”

Yet the city can invest with major Wall Street firms like Goldman Sachs, companies that played a direct role in the current financial crisis, he noted.

Wozniak’s proposal, first reported in the San Francisco Chronicle, doesn’t look like it will go over easily.

Bob Meola, a Peace and Justice Commissioner, said he won’t sit still and let Wozniak dismantle the law.

“I’ll fight this in the streets, at City Hall, anywhere it needs to be fought,” Meola told the Chronicle.

Meola said the concern about nuclear weapons that led to the 1986 vote still stands. “It’s about the whole nuclear cycle. There is still a grave threat to the planet both from nuclear weapons and nuclear power. I wouldn’t want to see Berkeley invest in a government entity that researches, develops, stores nuclear weapons or even contributes to the war economy. I don’t think US Treasuries or Wall Street are a socially responsible and good place for Berkeley to invest its money.”

Since the 1986 Nuclear Free Berkeley Act was passed by voters, the city council can not overturn it. But there is some discretion in the administrative implementation of the law, which is what Wozniak hopes to amend. He already got the council on September 20 to approve a resolution allowing the city to invest in long-term federal securities, and will return with an additional resolution adding short-term 90-day notes, which is what the city would invest in.

Wozniak is hoping that practicality takes precedence over an outdated philosophical position, but he recognizes that may not be easy.

“Everything is controversial in Berkeley,” he said. “The more obscure it is and the more irrelevant it is to everyday life, the more controversial.”

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  • Shutterbuggery

    If those three examples are the only ones Wozniak has to show the terrible effects of the Nuclear Free Zone, maybe the best way for him to reduce the ‘bureaucracy’ is to resign. 

  • Completely Serious

    “Bob Meola, a Peace and Justice Commissioner, said he won’t sit still and let Wozniak dismantle the law.”

    Gordon,  add a rider to the bill to abolish the Peace and Justice Commission, too.

    ““Everything is controversial in Berkeley,” he said. “The more obscure it
    is and the more irrelevant it is to everyday life, the more

    As the kids say, “True dat.”

  • Can you name anything positive that’s come out of our largely symbolic anti-nuke stance in the last decade?

    This is not snark, it is an honest question.

  • Tom

    Agreed, get rid of Meola!

  • Completely Serious

    Sure.  Numerous “second world” countries have abandonded their nuclear arms programs out of deference to the polity of Berkeley.  Isn’t that obvious?

    Hey, how about a new ban on multi-use/ground floor vacancy/top floors housing developments?  THAT would improve the city.

    Some choice quotes from the SFGate article:

    “City Councilman Kriss Worthington agreed [with Meola]. “The problem is not solved. We shouldn’t close our eyes,” he said.
    “The world is still unsafe because of the immense amount of nuclear
    weapons in other countries.””

    Yes, Kriss, OTHER COUNTRIES!  Get it?  How about paying attention to your DISTRICT and make some progress on Telegraph and the potholes and the closed pool?

    “However, Councilwoman Susan Wengraf said the Nuclear Free Berkeley
    Act might not be the effective political statement it once was.  Most UC Berkeley students were born after the act passed and pay little attention to the “Nuclear Free Zone” signs, she said.”

    Why just the other day, I saw a cluster of sophomores carrying nuclear power rods in their messenger bags, oblivious to their crime.  And the cops ignored them, too, preferring to ticket those dangerous parked cars!

  • Berkeley parent

    Gordon Wozniak for mayor! What a sensible idea. He seems to be the only voice of reason in city government.

  • Anonymous

    Good luck with that Mr. Wozniak! While I agree that the policy is hypocritical seeing as Berkeley has no problem  taking federal money for purposes that suit the various departments, but won’t invest in one of the “safest” investment vehicles–US Treasuries.  However, this will just bring out all the crazy die-hard Berkeley Don Quixote’s and the proposal will die an ugly death.  How about tackling something a little more down to earth like the budget problems having to do with too many employees?

  • Anonymous

    Finally I’ll be able to get the plutonium I need to generate the 1.21 gigawatts of power I need to send my DeLorean back to 1985 to stop this from having been passed in the first place.

    Ok, ok. I’m sure it has served a purpose, but I agree it is time to amend or scrap this policy. Sheesh, between the Nuclear Free Zone and rigid redistricting rules there sure was a lot of craziness going on in Berkeley in ’86.

  • There’s still a lot of craziness going on in Berkeley.

  • Guest

    I’m a new resident, and I always assumed that the signs were meant to indicate that we wouldn’t allow nuclear energy (i.e., no nuclear power plants) in our town—I hadn’t imagined how detailed the implications of the sign really are.

  • Bruce Love

    Unofficially, the decommissioning of the Etcheverry reactor on campus is attributed to the act.  I don’t think that the city actually had the legal authority to order that reactor removed, but contemporary news reports have officials citing the negative political attention it was drawing as one reason the reactor was decommissioned.

  • The Etcheverry reactor was decommissioned 23 years ago in 1988.

    Is there anything positive that’s come out of our largely symbolic anti-nuke stance in the last decade?

  • Bruce Love

    They haven’t reinstalled it.

  • Heather W.

    welcome to berkeley, guest. 

  • Heather W.

    Still? Like it ever went away? 

  • Johnclavine

    Actually, the only thing in the article that I find “irrelevant to everyday life” is Wozniak’s political position.

  • Anonymous

    I still like the idea of opposing activities which essentially support organizations who build nuclear weapons and support the industry that does.

  • libraterian

    Berkeley’s local order is in for a bunch of “loose tooth” revisions. 

    The loose teeth, such as this outdated nuclear ordinance, fat beggars masquerading as free speech, waste/green waste/recycled waste bin blight etc.  and other embarrassments  of our “Think Vocal, Act Global” strategy, will be worked by the tongues…Wozniak, Meola, et al, until they’re either pulled out in referendum or fall out at the council or courts. 

    Until then we just can’t resist playing with them.   

  • Anonymous

    I agree. Anything to take the edge off Berkeley’s reputation as a city of Kooks.

  • They also haven’t genetically engineered a radioactive Godzilla-style monster, Tom. I guess that’s thanks to the anti-nuke ordinance too.

    The fact that Cal lies directly on fault lines clearly has nothing to do with the decision not to have a nuclear reactor on campus.

  • Care to expand that comment, “John Clavine?”

    How is Wozniak’s position on this issue, which could potentially save/make money for the City government, “irrelevant to everyday life?”

  • Bruce Love

    re: “The fact that Cal lies directly on fault lines clearly has nothing to do with the decision not to have a nuclear reactor on campus”

    That’s more or less correct.   The school’s official line was that it was being decommissioned due to “great wear and declining academic value” and the common understanding at the time was that the anti-nuke ordinance and the movement behind it helped UC decide to decommission the 1MW reactor in 1987.

    In fairness, it’s plausible that the Reactor Safety Committee had noted earthquake risks with concern but that’s just speculation.  It’s also plausible they weren’t that worried about such risks since the reactor model was supposedly more fail safe than most.

    You know, they knew the fault was there when they built and and ran it for a couple of decades.   Folks were pretty cavalier with this stuff back then.   For example, when it was installed at Cal, the main designer of this particular reactor model had only a few years earlier been forced to abandon his project to build a spaceship for a manned mission to Jupiter.    The plan was to load up an enormous spaceship with atomic bombs which would be set off, one after another, behind the ship — pushing it forward.   A nuclear test ban treaty was the final nail in the coffin of this otherwise Perfectly Sane plan (what could possibly go wrong?!?).

  • I love how “unofficially” and “common understanding” are good enough evidence for you when you support something, but as soon as someone says something you disagree with (such as criticism of BUSD) you want facts, figures, and official documentation.

    From what I’ve read changing attitudes about the danger posed by the active fault line were just as responsible for the UC’s decision to decommission the reactor as the city’s toothless anti-nuke ordinance. If you have any facts, figures, or documentation conclusively proving that the active fault line had absolutely nothing to do with their decision to do so, I’d love to see them.

  • Bruce Love

    Sure, Sharkey.  The Bancroft collected some oral histories.   One of them is called “Thomas H. Pigford:  Building the Fields of Nuclear Energy and Nuclear Waste management 1950-1999”.

    Pigford was one of the leaders building the nuclear engineering department at Cal and he was the lead on getting a research reactor in Berkeley in the first place.  He was in charge of the decommissioning.

    In his view, the shut-down was mainly driven by competition for space on campus.  (And, indeed, the shut-down of the reactor enabled the building of Soda Hall.)

    This was during my third five-year term as department chairman. The reactor was no longer adequately serving the campus programs of teaching and research. It was still very popular with LBL, and of course many people would say there are students involved there, but in the 1980s LBL was mainly professional staff with not many students, so I couldn’t make the academic argument. The work from Lockheed was still growing. The reactor was making lots of money for us, because we would charge Lockheed, for example, and charge LBL, but we could see that its use in the academic program for research–not demonstrations, but for research–was greatly diminished. And I pointed this out to [Mike] Heyman, who was the chancellor then. He was either vice chancellor or later chancellor, but I think it was when Heyman was chancellor that I pointed out to him that he should know this: we were happy with the income, but it was no longer a major part of our academic program. I knew that the campus was always looking for space and I said I had concluded, and most of my colleagues agreed, that the way our academic program had materialized, its use for research within the department and campus was not very large anymore and that I thought that we should either make it a service facility to continue what it was actually doing, but administratively decouple it so it could run a little more efficiently, or get rid of it. But that would be very expensive. And we got an estimate and I gave Heyman the quote–I can’t remember if it was two or three million dollars– expecting him to say we shouldn’t touch it. Instead he said it’s a bargain. He was very fair. I don’t think he was motivated by the frequent anti-reactor demonstrations, because we’d learned to live with those and it didn’t hurt us academically, but the cost of high tech laboratory space on the campus is enormous and if he could free up that much space, he could show, I think, that it was worth doing, and so we did it.

    So, considerations of being on a fault line had approximately 0% to do with the decision unless Pigford is hiding something.

    Is it true, though, what Pigford says of Heyman: “I don’t think he was motivated by the frequent anti-reactor demonstrations”?   Probably.  Then more than now there was a more or less permanent demonstration on campus many days of the year.   This had been the “steady state” of things for a long time and there is no reason to think it directly informed Cal’s decision making.

    But what of the anti-nuke ordinance?  Did that have an impact?

    Here’s an example of what the College of Engineering has to say about it:

    The gymnasium-sized basement of Etcheverry Hall once housed a complete nuclear reactor. It was removed when the City of Berkeley declared itself nuclear-free, and its absence permitted the building of Soda Hall. Keep an eye out for the nuclear-powered robotic ant that supposedly lives there according to Nukees, a comic strip written by an NE grad and published in the Daily Cal.

    The old timers are pretty insistent that the ordinance did not move them.  For example,  Karl Stark Pister, a CoE contemporary colleague of Pigford, recalls the department ignoring the city’s demands up to a certain point, but relenting when the battle for space on campus added to the problem.   (He also intimates that DoE regulations — that fuel rods be removed “on a moonless dark night without any prior announcements” — may have resulted in Cal actually violating the Nuclear Free Berkeley ordinance :-)   He also confirms that, by the time of its decommissioning, other departments were getting more value out of the reactor than the CoE nuclear program itself (hence Pigford’s proposal to convert it to a service or get rid of it – where he figured that the cost of getting rid of it would be prohibitively high).

    We have to note and take with a grain of salt the idea that the ordinance had no impact.   Surely, if it were the only force aligned against the reactor it would have not had impact.   Yet the departmental memory is that it did.

    The decision crossed institutional boundaries at Cal and the triangulation had three factors:  CoE needed to shed the cost of operation.  CoE wanted space for a new building.  From the town were mounting cries for and legal moves towards forcing decommissioning.   Decommissioning rather than conversion to a campus service was the decision taken.

    Not much there about earthquakes.  I am glad it was gone by 1989, though.

  • The gymnasium-sized basement of Etcheverry Hall once housed a complete nuclear reactor. It was removed when the City of Berkeley declared itself nuclear-free

    Correlation does not imply causation, Thomas. That it was removed after Berkeley passed the ordinance does not prove that it was removed because of the ordinance.

    You have yet to provide a single piece of evidence proving that the active fault line had absolutely nothing to do with the decision to decommission the reactor.

    Though it’s nice to see you do more research that refutes your initial suggestions that the reactor was closed (and not re-opened) because of the ordinance.

  • Kevin Jude

    Take a pill, Sharkey.  We all know you have it in for Tom Whathisname, but he’s shown documentation for plenty of reasons that the reactor was decomissioned, complete with non-ironic quote marks, and all you’ve given us is “from what I’ve read.”  Put up or lay off.

  • Michele Lawrence

    It is not contradictory to one’s value to vehemently oppose the expansion of Nuclear weapons, or energy, and still recognize out-of-date or poorly written laws that need to be modified. However, to accept monies from the government or other agencies and not allow us to hire those same entities to serve our own purposes certainly is a contradiction. The law needs to be changed.

  • Chamber Arts

    And those purposes are???

  • libraterian

    Those porpoises are ‘participating in the real world.’ The one outside your rent controlled window.

  • delete

  •  …and all his documentation has been completely irrelevant to the question I initially posed, Kevin.

    Can you name anything positive that’s come out of our largely symbolic anti-nuke stance in the last decade?

    Simply throwing out a bunch of information (much of which discredits his own original statement that the reactor was decommissioned as a result of the ordinance) does not make that information relevant. Despite the volume of text he’s produced, Thomas Lord has yet to list a single positive thing that has come out of the toothless anti-nuke ordinance in the last decade.

  • Billg

    Nuclear Family Free Zone.

    Single parent, extended, gay etc are OK.