Boston — Battle lines are being drawn between a Cambridge, Mass., research firm and local antinuclear activists determined to make this university city a nuclear-free zone.
At issue is an initiative that would effectively prohibit any new research, development, testing, or production of nuclear weapons in Cambridge after the Nov. 8, 1983, city election.
Although there are already some 23 nuclear-free zones in small towns across the United States, none host companies that are directly involved in research or development of nuclear weapons.
However, if the Cambridge initiative is approved by voters and its constitutionality upheld by the courts, it would set a dramatic precedent. Cambridge would become the first community actually to prevent local companies from accepting Defense Department contracts for nuclear weapons development.
Violators would be subject to up to a $5,000 fine and/or 60 days in jail for each violation.
The campaign is being waged by Mobilization for Survival, a Cambridge-based political organization. It appears to be aimed specifically at C. S. Draper Laboratories Inc., a Vietnam war-era spinoff of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Draper holds $100 million in Defense Department contracts to design the guidance systems for the MX, cruise, Trident II, and Poseidon missiles. Mobilization for Survival says the presence of Draper and other firms conducting nuclear weapons research makes Cambridge a priority target in time of war. (Nuclear research at Harvard University and MIT would be exempt from the ban because their policies already prohibit weapons research.)
About 60 other firms in Cambridge would be affected in some way by the initiative, but Draper and some 1,500 of its 1,800 employees (about 10 percent of whom are Cambridge residents) stand to lose the most.
Draper, which has made its opposition to the initiative very clear in the past few weeks, had not taken any overt steps to block the Nuclear-free Cambridge Campaign - until last week.
On Aug. 4, lawyers from the established Boston firm of Goodwin, Proctor and Hoar, representing three Draper employees who live in Cambridge, went before the state Ballot Law Commission to challenge the validity of some of the 4,579 signatures on the petitions certified by the Cambridge Election Commission. (This is already much more than the 8 percent of registered Cambridge voters required to place the initiative on the ballot.)
Draper's lawyers charged that during the five-day verification procedure July 18-25:
* No attempt was made by the Cambridge Election Commission to check signatures against a master list or check for duplicates.
* Some of the petition signers are no longer Cambridge voters since the Cambridge Election Commission began verification using a 1982 voter list and then switched to the 1983 list as it became available.
* Some of the signatures were verified even though petition signers had used only first name initials, omitted middle initials, or were signed with nicknames.
Mobilization for Survival's counsel, lawyer Robin Freedman, who has volunteered her services to the nuclear-free campaign, says ''the Cambridge Election Commission was following the rules all the way.'' Miss Freedman says that even if all 593 names questioned by Draper's lawyers are in fact invalid, ''it would not be enough to make a difference.'' She says the whole procedure ''is a waste of all our time.'' The commission's decision is due Thursday.
Mobilization spokesman Rich Schreuer, a graduate student at Northeastern University in Boston (who lives in nearby Arlington), scoffs at the tactics taken by Draper's lawyers to keep the initiative off the ballot, and says that ''Draper is simply pulling at straws.''
He says, ''Draper is doing everything it can to block this thing (the initiative) and has even hired a PR firm to conduct public-opinion polls. That's fairly slick if not unethical.''
Cambridge Reports, a public-opinion research firm, refuses to comment one way or the other.
Draper's president, Robert A. Duffy, shoots back that ''an unethical application of fear is being promulgated by them (Nuclear-free Cambridge Campaign). They are attempting to frighten people by creating a target out of Draper Labs.
''It seems they are trying to put themselves in the minds of the Soviet strategic targeting staff. With a 30-minute flight time, I wouldn't think they (the Soviets) would be targeting something that might be a threat to them 10 years from now.''
''I want them [Mobilization for Survival] to know that we're not going to lay down and be knocked over,'' Mr. Duffy asserts. ''I respect them and their opinion. I just happen to think they're wrong. I'm just trying to preserve the capability for the United States that this lab represents. I don't want to move. We can move, but I don't want to.''
Mobilization for Survival says that if the Cambridge initiative is successful , the group's next objective is a statewide nuclear-free zone.