Nuclear Free Local Authorities began in Manchester with a declaration of the City Council on 5 November 1980 to work to eliminate the threat of nuclear weapons. The City declared itself a ‘Nuclear Free Zone’ and called on other local governments in the North West of England to do the same.
The idea rapidly caught on with many local governments in Britain wanting to signal their opposition to the arms race and deployment of Cruise, Pershing and SS20s nuclear missiles in Europe. By the end of 1982 over 150 local governments representing the interests of over 60% of the people in England, Scotland and Wales had declared their areas Nuclear Free Zones and a Steering Committee to co-ordinate the policy of this new municipal movement for nuclear disarmament was established. Even Strathclyde Regional Council, home to Britain’s nuclear missile submarine fleet at Faslane, gave its backing to Nuclear Free Zones recognising that, though by no means a statement of fact in their area, it was a declaration of intent.
It was in 1982, at the height of the Cold War, that the Nuclear Free Local Authorities scored their first major success. Government was keen to signal British readiness to contemplate the use of its nuclear arsenal through demonstrating national will to bear a retaliatory nuclear strike. The Home Office (ie. the UK Ministry of the Interior) was leading the preparation of a National Civil Defence Exercise ‘Hard Rock’. Local governments were to put their civil defence plans, then almost exclusively aimed at nuclear survival, through their paces.
However, the Government suffered defeat. ‘Hard Rock’ was characterised by a strong peace movement as exercise ‘Hard Luck’ and the newly formed Nuclear Free local governments refused to participate. The national civil defence exercise had to be abandoned because there was not sufficient local government support to make it ‘national’ or credible. That was the last attempt made by a Government to date to mount a national civil defence exercise in the UK.
Support for the Nuclear Free Local Authorities grew and developed internationally with the first International Nuclear Free Zone Local Authorities Conference in Manchester in 1984. This was followed by conferences in Cordoba, Spain 1985; Perugia, Italy 1986; Eugene, Oregon 1988; Glasgow, Scotland 1990; and Yokohama, Japan in 1992. Over 4000 towns and cities world-wide have declared themselves ‘nuclear free’ according to records held by the office of Nuclear Free America. Resource constraints make it impossible to keep a precise up-to-date record but the UK Secretariat keeps a list of country contacts available on request.
In the early years, UK local governments focused their attention on the threat of nuclear weapons but the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 changed that. Overnight the world woke up to the fact that a nuclear disaster in a power reactor could have significant health and safety implications for communities thousands of miles away. In the UK no local government is more than a hundred or so miles from a nuclear power station and the transportation of nuclear materials arising from the civil and military programmes brings almost every community into direct contact with hazardous radioactive materials. As a consequence, after 1986 the scope of Nuclear Free Local Authority work broadened into a campaign against both the hazards of nuclear weapons and of nuclear energy.
The mission statement of the Nuclear Free Local Authorities’ National Steering Committee in the 1990s reads as follows:
“The Committee is convinced that nuclear weapons and energy systems present extraordinary and unacceptable risks to the planet and its people; it works for a nuclear free future in practical ways within local government.”
[This history is taken from the Nuclear Free Local Authorities web site at www.nuclearpolicy.info].