The decision of the Venice economic summit to reduce Western consumption of foreign oil partly by building more nuclear power plants finds the United States at a crossroads.
Some nuclear scientists and other concerned scholars urge that the US-Soviet nuclear arms race and the multiplying number of smaller countries stocking or seeking to stock their own nuclear arsenals make great caution and a vigorous new approach to arms control essential.
Others, including leading US conservatives supporting and advising Ronald Reagan in his bid for the presidency, want speedy nuclear rearmament. They urge deployment of such controversial weapons as the enhanced-radiation, or neutron, warhead.
The Carter administration, as reaffirmed by Deputy Secretary of STate Warren Christopher at a breakfast meeting with newsmen June 24, wants the US Senate to ratify the shelved strategic arms-limitation treaty (SALT II) with the USSR as soon as the world political climate over Afghanistan allows. Mr. Reagan has urged that SALT II be withdrawn completely.
Thirty-five years have passed since the US used atomic weapons against Japan. This interim without their further use, says Jeremy J. Stone, director of the Federation of American Scientists in the June FAS Public Interest Report, has "established a precedent, backed by an understanding of nuclear dangers, that represents a hard-won barrier against subsequent first use."
Nonetheless, warns Dr. Stone, the danger of nuclear war rises as flash points like Iran and Afghanistan multiply and the superpowers increasingly compete for world energy resources.
At the Venice economic summit, the US, Canada, Japan, and the nine members of the European Community committed themselves to a two-track oil-replacement policy of "soft" energy development like coal and solar power, while also building new nuclear reactors.
This is the wrong course, says three antinuclear activists in a forthcoming book summarized in the summer issue of Foreign Affairs quarterly. Even if under various safeguards, nuclear reactors as well as reprocessing plants for plutonium and uranium-enrichment are potential sources of clandestine nuclear-bomb material, assert Amory B. Lovins, his wife, L. Hunter Lovins, and Leonard Ross in "Nuclear Power and Nuclear Bombs."
Mr. Lovins is British representative of an antinuclear group called Friends of the Earth Inc. His wife is an attorney an social scientists, and Mr. Ross teaches law at the University of California.
The authors argue that the nonproliferation treaty review conference in Geneva this summer should be one of several occasions to plan the orderly phase-out of all nuclear power plants. These, they contend, are uneconomical, unprofitable, and would be eliminated by normal free-market forces in the long run anyway.
Instead, they assert, the Western industrial world should lead in developing "soft" oil substitutes -- coal, solar power, geothermal power, and biogas.
That the US Congress is on the same wave length as the Venice summit was shown by House action June 24 to approve major add-ons to President Carter's omnibus energy bill, for both nuclear and "soft" systems.
The legislation, which has still to pass the Senate, carries $6.83 billion in fiscal 1981 for the US Department of Energy, $4.86 billion of which is earmarked for fission, fusion, nuclear defense, space nuclear systems, and uranium supply and enrichment. An amendment, cosponsored by Rep. Edward Markey (D) of Massachusetts, a foe of proliferation abroad, and Rep. Don Fuqua (D) of Florida adds more than $100 million for research in solar energy, magnetic fusion, and high-energy physics.
Mr. Reagan's support for deploying the so-called neutron bomb was forecast by one of his senior defense advisers, Lt. Gen. Edward L. Rowney (USA, ret.), who helped negotiate the SALT II treaty with the Soviets and then said the Carter administration had been misled in accepting it.
"We could expect him [Mr. Reagan] to press for its deployment," General Rowley told the Congressional Quarterly last week. "We've talked about it, and I've advised him that this was one of the biggest propaganda coups we've let the Soviets pull with the Europeans."
After first proposing it to NATO, then withdrawing the proposal after West Germany had approved, President Carter decided in April 1978 to defer full production of enhanced-radiation warheads intended for artillery shells and long-range missiles.
Published reports have mentioned China's interest in acquiring enhanced-radiation technology. The latest issue of the Washington newsletter, Strategy Week, claims that the flash detected by a US satellite in the Southern Hemisphere last Sept. 22 was an Israeli test of a neutron warhead, with South African help.