The New York Times
BYLINE: By ADESHINA EMMANUEL
WASHINGTON — More than 130 communities across the United States have declared themselves ”nuclear-free” in the last 30 years, most enacting measures rich in symbolism but low on clout that result in little more than a sign at the outskirts of town announcing that nuclear weapons are not welcome.
That has not been the case in Takoma Park, a liberal Maryland suburb northeast of the District of Columbia sometimes referred to as ”the People’s Republic of Takoma Park.” In December 1983, the City Council passed the Takoma Park Nuclear Free Zone Act, prohibiting the development, storage or transportation of nuclear weapons within city limits. The measure also outlawed city investments and public contracts with corporations connected to the nuclear weapons industry.
So, it came as a shock last month when the mayor and Council approved a waiver to the ordinance to allow the local library to keep a five-computer desktop system operating on computers made by Hewlett-Packard, a Silicon Valley company that has worked on the country’s nuclear weapons programs. Other waivers have been granted in the past, but this was the first that defied the recommendations of the group established to supervise adherence to the act. The action left some questioning whether the city was straying from its values.
Julie Boddy, who sits on the Nuclear-Free Takoma Park Committee, said this would not have happened in the 1980s, when antinuclear movements were teeming across the nation. ”A slogan that was very, very important was ‘global consciousness, local action,’ ” Ms. Boddy said.
”The repercussions of supporting Hewlett-Packard certainly are part of that,” said Ms. Boddy, who has little patience for critics who see the nuclear-free stance as ”quirkiness and self-indulgence” instead of a crucial issue.
The fight over the library’s computers showed a crack in the nuclear-free act’s armor, something that Jay Levy, the chairman of the nuclear-free committee, admitted hurt the city’s reputation as an exemplary nuclear-free zone.
He said Takoma Park has to move past the episode and ”take some solace in the fact that this was a goof-up,” referring to the fact that a sales agent for Userful, the company that handles the library’s computer orders and tech support, had erroneously concluded that the deal was fine because Userful itself is not connected with a nuclear-arms program. By the time the mistake was discovered, city officials concluded that it would be too costly and time-consuming to undo.
Mr. Levy was upbeat about the ordinance’s effectiveness over 28 years and said officials would be looking to improve the law, which he and others say is still a good model.
Enforcing ”no-nukes” measures has grown more difficult, however, since the government imposed stricter rules on disclosing the details of military contracts after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. In the heyday of nuclear-free ordinances, the organization Nuclear Free America provided local governments with a regularly updated list of companies and subsidiaries with ties to the nuclear industry. The group, now defunct, published its last list in 2002.
A new generation of activists — one that does not share past fears of a cataclysmic nuclear arms race — has lobbied municipal officials on other causes like environmental issues. As local governments try to squeeze more from each dollar, it becomes harder to justify spending more money to avoid dealing with companies like I.B.M., G.E., Goodrich, Otis Elevator, Boeing and Honeywell that have ties to the nation’s nuclear weapons program.
Even where budget matters sometimes trump other considerations, some proponents of nuclear-free zones argue there is still value in local governments taking stances on an international issue that poses an imminent and lasting danger.
Marin County, Calif., which has had a nuclear-free ordinance since 1986, has banned the purchase of tires from Goodrich, but decided it was too expensive to jettison its I.B.M. computers. Jon Oldfather, chairman of the county’s Peace Conversion Commission, which has an oversight role similar to the Nuclear-Free Takoma Park Committee, has no illusions that the ordinance by itself will revive the no-nukes movement. Still, he said, ”By having laws in place to qualify issues, it provides more continuity for longer-term effort.”
In Arcata, Calif., a nuclear-free zone since 1989, the town’s purchasing agent, Harold Miller, flags contracts that might violate the local ordinance. The town removed the I.B.M. computers it used to manage its finances within three years of the ordinance’s passage and has not placed an order for H.P. printers in seven or eight years, Mr. Miller said. It has, however, purchased lighting from G.E. because other options were too costly.
In some communities, those kinds of decisions have simply never come up.
In 1982, Garrett Park, Md., became the second jurisdiction after Hawaii County to declare itself nuclear-free, but that is where the fight ended. The current town hall manager, Elizabeth S. Henley, said, ”It was really a symbolic gesture.”
In Hoboken, N.J., which passed a nuclear-free ordinance in 1984, the city clerk, James. J. Farina, said, ”Since then, there’s nothing that’s really jumped out that gave us cause to enforce,” even though contracts inform vendors that they must be nuclear-free.
In other jurisdictions, including Amherst, Mass., Oakland, Calif., and Union County, N.J., ordinances were struck down or weakened by the courts.
Even in some proudly progressive places, not everyone is on board with the restrictions.
In Berkeley, Calif., one City Council member, Gordon Wozniak, wants to repeal the part of his city’s nuclear-free measure that bars public investments in United States Treasury bonds.
He expressed doubt that the Berkeley act actually influences the nuclear war industry and said he believes that the act is hypocritical because it does not take the moral high ground when it comes to investments in Wall Street.
Another Council member, Susan Wengraf, said that ”the act was ”the progressive thing to do” 26 years ago, but that ”there are unintended consequences, and we just came up against that when we found out about investments in Treasury bonds.”
Bob Meola, who has been on Berkeley’s Peace and Justice Commission since 2006, disagrees, saying that nuclear war is as much of a threat now as it was in the ’80s.
”We have nuclear weapons, old ones that we have in too many places,” he said. ”We have people looking to replace them and make new ones. We have countries that have them but don’t confirm or deny whether they do have them. We have countries trying to get them for the first time. And now we have the so-called terrorists.”
Mr. Meola also had words for local governments who make purely symbolic gestures about nuclear weapons: ”I think people should put their money where their mouth is.” he said.
Copyright 2012 The New York Times Company