PALO ALTO — This city, home to half a dozen of the nation's largest defense contractors and hundreds of smaller companies that produce military equipment, is locked in acrimonious debate over whether to declare itself a nuclear-weapons-free zone.
A proposal on Tuesday's ballot, known as Measure D, would ban all nuclear weapons work within the city and bar City Hall from investing in or doing business with any company that does nuclear weapons work.
What sets the Palo Alto measure apart from a resolution the City Council passed in 1982 and from most other nuclear-free zones declared by U.S. cities is its tough wording and provisions for enforcement, including the possibility that the city-owned electric utility might be barred from selling power to nuclear contractors.
No American community with a significant defense industry has yet passed a binding law declaring a nuclear-free zone, and recent efforts in Cambridge, Mass., and Sonoma County were soundly defeated by well-financed campaigns.
No Guesses on Outcome
Neither side of the controversy in Palo Alto is yet willing to hazard a guess as to whether the nuclear-free zone will be approved here.
If Palo Alto's 37,000 registered voters approve Measure D, the city would join 3,000 other communities throughout the world that have declared themselves "nuclear free" as part of an international effort to put pressure on weapons makers.
In many locations, the declarations are merely symbolic. Less than half of the 139 nuclear-free zones established so far in the United States are legally binding, said Debra Hamilton, coordinator for Nuclear Free America, a Baltimore-based organization that assists local anti-nuclear groups.
Even in those places in which the declaration has the effect of law, the results have been primarily bureaucratic rather than economic.
For example, Marin County a few miles to the north, which passed a binding nuclear-free-zone ordinance last year, did not have any significant nuclear weapons work to lose, according to Marin County Supervisor Bob Stockwell.
Palo Alto, long a hub of high technology and military industry, is another story.
"This is a very different proposal than nuclear-free-zone initiatives that have been passed elsewhere," said City Councilman Larry Klein. "This one has teeth. It is mandatory. Citizens can sue."
The members of the Palo Alto City Council unanimously oppose the measure because of a host of dire economic and legal troubles they say it would cause.
Disruption of the city-owned utility system, a possibility the drafters of Measure D admit they overlooked, might be the single greatest economic impact.
According to city legal experts, the ban on contracts with nuclear weapons manufacturers would prohibit sales of electricity to those companies, as well as city purchases of goods and services from those companies. That means some companies could have their power cut off.
Attorney Michael Shuman, an expert on municipal involvement in foreign and military affairs and president of the Center for Innovative Diplomacy in San Francisco, said, "Almost all of the horribles which are predicted to flow from the selective purchasing provisions of the ordinance can be exempted by City Council action."
Shuman also said he did not believe that the measure would apply to the sales of electricity. "It falls upon the City Council to interpret it in a reasonable way."
Many of the consequences the council members fear are outlined in a report by Q. E. D. Research, Inc. which was commissioned for $15,000 by Lockheed Missile & Space Co., Inc.
The report presents a worst-case scenario in which the nuclear-weapons-free zone would, among other problems, directly eliminate 5,000 to 10,000 jobs and possibly wipe out 20,000 more through an economic ripple effect.
Richard Carlson, the author of the report, said that no one really knows what the zone would do because "there are no precedents." His predictions are meant to help companies prepare for the worst, he said.
"From a corporate planning viewpoint, you have to take the worst case into account immediately," Carlson said.
The Q. E. D. Research report also provides potent political ammunition for the well-financed campaign against Measure D, and that is its real purpose, according to Michael Closson, executive director of the Center for Economic Conversion in Mountain View, and a supporter of the measure.
"It's a political diatribe that overstates the case monumentally," Closson said. "It's replete with red herrings and scare tactics."
Closson, whose nonprofit center specializes in promoting the conversion of war industries to peaceful production, acknowledges that Measure D would have economic costs. "Nobody said that building a peaceful society is either cheap or easy," he said.
Backers of the proposal contend that concerns about the costs mask the real issue, which is how to prevent a nuclear war.
Judith LeVine, of the Palo Alto Nuclear Weapons Free Zone Coalition, said "If we contribute to or profit from the nuclear arms race, then we are essentially aiding and abetting it."
Spending in the campaign has been lopsided. While the backers of Measure D estimate that they will spend $10,000, the major opposition group claims a budget of $100,000, much of it contributed by large military contractors.
Although $100,000 is a large sum by Palo Alto campaign standards, it is dwarfed by the almost $500,000 spent last year to defeat a nuclear-free-zone measure in Sonoma County. In the Sonoma County race, money came from large electronics and military contractors from throughout the United States.
Citizens Against Measure D decided not to accept donations from businesses outside the city. The group has, however, hired the Los Angeles political consulting firm of Warren, Clausen & Glaub, the same firm that helped defeat the Sonoma County initiative.