'Nuclear free' city grants waiver for HP

Cold War era stand is still influencing IT decision-making in one U.S. community

WASHINGTON - In November 1983, a Cold War-era made-for-TV movie called 'The Day After' aired. It featured the nuclear destruction of Kansas City.

A month later, the city of Takoma Park, Md. passed an act to make the city a nuclear free zone.

Almost 30 years later, the city finally allowed the purchase of Hewllett-Packard computers -- but only due to a waiver from the city council.

The local legislation prohibits Takoma Park from purchasing goods and services from a list of contractors connected to U.S. nuclear weapons production.

HP is on the list because of its defense contracts, as are some other large tech vendors and that has created a problem for the city.

In April, the city library purchased new Linux-based systems from its longtime vendor, Userful Corp., in Calgary, for its computer learning center

Although Userful had submitted "Certification of Non-Involvement in the Nuclear Weapons Industry," as part of its contract, the document did not cover the HP hardware it was using.

It was only when the new computers were delivered "that we realized we had been sent HP computers," wrote Ellen Arnold-Robbins, the library director, to the city council.

The Takoma Park council was told that there wasn't any alternative to this system, which uses open source apps and had the ability to support over 30 languages simultaneously.

The council, this week, approved a waiver to allow the library to use the systems.

Takoma Park is making its IT vendor decisions off a dated list developed by Nuclear Free America, which today is inactive. It hasn't produced a new list of vendors connected with the nuclear arms industry since 2004.

Richard Torgerson, who was president of the group when the last list was produced, said the Bush administration ended disclosure of weapons procurement codes it needed to track suppliers. At that point, Nuclear Free America "stopped being able to report on information it couldn't obtain," he said.

Today, Torgerson said it is difficult to determine whether a company is connected to U.S. nuclear weapons production.

"Most municipalities will err on the side of assuming - in the absence of concrete information otherwise - that a company is not a nuclear weapons maker," said Torgerson.

Nonetheless, Torgerson supports Takoma Park's decision to continue to use the 2004 list. "It's the last available reliable information that's possible to obtain," he said.

Abel Castillo, Takoma Park's IT manager, said IBM and Motorola are some of the other companies on the list. But the city, he said, has not had problems in finding suppliers.

Castillo said the city now buys Acer clients.

Ray Bjokulund, a vice president and chief knowledge officer at GovWin, a consulting firm, said the nuclear free initiative is a noble position for Takoma Park to take, "but it is very hard to draw those lines" about who is connected with a nuclear program and who isn't.

"The IT industry has become so diverse and so global that it is extremely hard to track not only where these parts come from and are assembled, but it is also very hard to track how they are used by the government and entities involved in nuclear weapons," said Bjokulund.

Jay Levy, who heads the Nuclear Free Takoma Park Committee, which advises the city council, said the city has only granted three waivers in the 29-year history of the nuclear free zone act. His committee opposed the library waiver.

He believes waivers should only be given in matters of public safety and health.

Takoma began discussing becoming a nuclear free zone before The Day After, but he said the movie was influential in bringing the issue to attention and winning passage.

There are about 130 communities with similar nuclear free ordinances, but not all of them are as aggressive as Takoma Park in dealing with suppliers.

"We feel it's important to make a stand against what we consider to be a potentially destructive force for the whole planet," said Levy.

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov, or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

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