Nuclear Testing Undercuts US Security Interests

IN 1992, for the first time in the nuclear age, the United States will have made a deliberate choice not to produce any new nuclear weapons. The last warhead under consideration, the W88 for the Trident II submarine ballistic missile, was canceled recently for budgetary and environmental reasons.

This is part of the dramatic reduction of nuclear arsenals in the US and former Soviet Union. Both already have eliminated all medium-range nuclear weapons. The Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (START), awaiting Senate approval, calls for dismantling about one-fourth of existing long-range weapons. As the result of other initiatives taken last year, tactical nuclear warheads have been removed from Navy surface ships, and nuclear armed bombers no longer "stand alert," ready to launch attacks on the Soviet

Union. Finally, the cancellations announced by George Bush in his State of the Union address, if matched by similar moves in Moscow, could further reduce strategic arsenals 40 percent below the level allowed under START.

So why does the Bush administration want to continue the testing of nuclear weapons?

In his FY93 budget, President Bush calls for the Department of Energy to spend $474 million on the testing of nuclear weapons. The Defense Nuclear Agency will allocate at least another $100 million. This is not only wasteful, but counter to US security interests.

It is wasteful because it is unnecessary. Since we are not producing any new nuclear weapons, we obviously won't be testing any. The Pentagon claims that repeated testing is needed to ensure the reliability and safety of weapons already in the arsenal. Reputable scientists and several government agencies have concluded, however, that those few warhead systems that need to be tested - the electronic and other nonnuclear components - can be examined separately from the actual explosive warhead. The Defense

Nuclear Agency already does substantial testing of this kind.

Claims that testing limits cannot be reliably verified don't make sense in an era when US-Russian cooperation in such areas is growing, and when we will have installed, at the Pentagon's expense, a dozen seismic monitoring stations throughout the former Soviet republics by year's end.

More than being a waste of money, however, nuclear testing can threaten US national security by undermining efforts to control the spread of nuclear weapons. The proliferation of nuclear weapons may be the chief threat America faces in the new, post-cold-war era. A world where nuclear weapons were commonplace, perhaps controlled by terrorist groups or irrational leaders, would be dangerous, uncertain, and unstable. Nuclear proliferation could represent a very complicating factor in any major internationa l crisis.

In addition, as House Armed Services Committee chairman Les Aspin has noted, America's status as the preeminent remaining military power means that nuclear weapons would become the great battlefield equalizer against the US. This contrasts dramatically with the situation during the cold war, when nuclear weapons were to be used as the battlefield equalizer by the US against the numerically superior conventional forces of the Warsaw Pact nations.

Downward trends in nuclear arsenals could be threatened if more countries join the nuclear club. Although it is difficult to quantify the threat, it is fair to say that several countries could produce nuclear weapons in the near-term, if they choose to do so. Already, as many as 20 countries have the capacity to build nuclear weapons equal to the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

There are two ways to deal with nuclear proliferation. One is to continue and strengthen the steps we have already taken. This strategy would tighten controls on the export of sensitive nuclear technology, encourage more states (including the former Soviet republics) to adhere to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), strengthen the International Atomic Energy Agency, which was established to oversee compliance with the NPT, and improve intelligence-gathering capabilities in the area of nuclear weapons' dev elopment.

All of these efforts would require the active cooperation of Russia, Japan, the European powers, and developing countries with nuclear potential. Continued US nuclear testing undermines this international effort to reduce the nuclear threat. The NPT contemplates that the US will stop nuclear testing as a prelude to negotiations for a multilateral Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

The other way - the administration's choice - is to continue going it alone: continue nuclear testing, devote minimal attention to technology controls, allow the NPT to fail, and spend $100 billion deploying an unproven system to intercept nuclear missiles.

In my view, the administration's approach is like closing the barn door after the horses have escaped. It is a reactive policy that assumes we can do little to stop nuclear proliferation. It is not enough. We must play an active role in a coordinated, international effort to halt the spread of nuclear weapons. An essential part of this strategy is to stop US nuclear weapons testing - now.

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