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.”