Keep the Lid on A-Tests

AS the July 1 expiration date on a moratorium on nuclear tests approaches, President Clinton's inclination to resume testing looks less and less defensible.

Congress enacted the ban last November. Once the ban expires, the law allows up to 15 tests between 1993 and 1996, after which further tests would be prohibited unless another country tests. The president is reportedly proposing nine tests, three of which will be conducted by Britain at the US Department of Energy's Yucca Flats test site in Nevada.

Opposition to new tests is building in Congress. If the president seeks to resume testing, lawmakers should reject the proposal and renew the ban.

Those who support the tests, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the State Department, argue that the six United States "shots" are needed to test modifications designed to ensure the safety and reliability of existing Trident, MX, and cruise-missile warheads. However, in 1991, an Air Force safety review panel noted that risks associated with modifying cruise-missile warheads to make them safer would outweigh the safety gains. Safety risks from handling these weapons already have been reduced to near ly zero: They have been taken off bombers and placed in secure bunkers.

As for the Trident warheads, the Navy reportedly is satisfied with their safety and refuses to spend the $3 billion to $6 billion to alter them, even if the modified warheads are tested.

State Department support for testing apparently is prompted by pressure from Britain and France, who have not tested during the moratorium: Britain, because it needs the US facility; France because its moratorium remains in force until the US resumes tests. Britain wants to test; it is said to be developing a new Trident warhead and a new bomb. Russia also has halted tests until the US resumes its program. Although it has made no commitment to a moratorium, China also has refrained from testing.

The Department of Energy, the president's science adviser, and the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency oppose new tests. With little to gain and momentum toward a comprehensive test ban to lose, Clinton should oppose them too.

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