WASHINGTON — NUCLEAR nonproliferation may take a big leap forward this year as 38 nations rush to finalize a treaty that would ban the testing of nuclear arms.
Under pressure of pending United States and Russian elections, negotiators attending the Conference on Disarmament resumed talks in Geneva last week to produce a final draft of a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). If major differences remaining can be ironed out in time, a 50-year dream of statesmen and arms-control experts could be realized.
The possibility of imminent agreement on a CTBT is prodding France to end a series of controversial nuclear tests in the South Pacific - including one last Saturday - months ahead of schedule.
"The CTBT would be one of the hardest-fought, longest-sought arms-control agreements since the dawn of the nuclear age," says Tom Zamora Collina, executive director of the Institute for Science and International Security, a nonprofit research group in Washington that specializes in arms control and disarmament.
A test-ban treaty would follow on the heels of one of the biggest achievements in the history of arms control - an agreement by 178 nations last year to extend indefinitely a treaty banning the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
The combination of nonproliferation and test-ban treaties would make it harder for nuclear-weapons states to upgrade their nuclear-weapons designs and harder for nonnuclear states to develop small, easily deliverable nuclear weapons in the first place.
Congress pushes ahead
This could prove to be a landmark year for arms control for other reasons. The US Senate ratified the 1993 START II strategic arms treaty on Friday. If the Russian Duma (lower house of parliament) follows suit, which is uncertain, the stage will be set for dramatic cuts in the two nations' nuclear arsenals within a decade.
The Senate, meanwhile, is also expected to vote this year on ratification of the 1992 Chemical Weapons Convention, which is designed to ban the cheapest weapon of mass destruction.
The current round of CTBT negotiations is expected to last 10 weeks and resume in May. On Jan. 23, President Clinton called on negotiators to reach quick agreement so that a final draft of the treaty could be submitted to the United Nations General Assembly for approval in June.
The major unresolved issue among the five declared nuclear states - the US, Britain, France, Russia, and China - concerns the extent of the ban. The US, Britain, France, and Russia favor a total, or "zero yield," ban.
China, however, seeks the option of conducting "peaceful nuclear explosions," which could be used for civilian demolition purposes, such as excavation or underground mining.
"From an international arms-control perspective, that would be a loophole in the CTBT that should not be permitted," Mr. Collina says, echoing the official US position in Geneva.
Any final text would have to be agreed on by the 38 members of the Conference on Disarmament and would then be submitted to the UN for final approval before being opened for signature to individual nations. It is expected that the treaty would not come into force until all five declared nuclear states have signed.
Nonnuclear and "threshold" nuclear states, led by India, are trying to use the CTBT negotiations as leverage to get the nuclear states to agree to a specific timetable for complete nuclear disarmament.
But John Holum, director of the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, says that "a time-bound framework for mutual disarmament is something [the US] can't live with."
India was the first nation to call for a global test ban, back in 1954, but tensions with Pakistan have thrown some doubt on whether either nation will sign. India, Pakistan, and Israel are the only "undeclared" nuclear states.
Together with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the CTBT would freeze a state of inequality, preserving the monopoly of the nuclear states and barring other states from joining the nuclear club. "The test-ban treaty takes the world as it finds it," Mr. Holum says.
Moscow gets a bargain
Holum sees "no lessening" in Russian interest in a CTBT, despite the country's recent political shift rightward. He says START II should also remain attractive to Moscow, because it locks in a state of nuclear equality with the US at no extra cost.
All nuclear tests today are conducted underground. A 1963 treaty banned testing in the atmosphere and underwater.
A total ban is now considered possible because, for the first time since the start of the nuclear age, all five declared nuclear nations consider it to be in their national interests.
Holum says the CTBT will be "far and away" the administration's biggest arms-control priority in 1996. If agreement is reached, President Clinton and other senior US officials will likely mount the kind of high-level lobbying effort to win signatures for the pact that they engaged in last spring to win support for the NPT.
If no agreement is reached in 1996, arms-control efforts, including an incipient movement to ban the production of fissile materials, could be set back.
"Arms control is a game of momentum, and you want the momentum going in the right direction," Collina says.