Bush's Voodoo Nonproliferation

EVERYTHING that's wrong with Washington is true in spades of the Bush administration's nuclear nonproliferation policy. The policy is shortsighted, controlled by a narrow group of entrenched bureaucrats, and hidden behind a blanket of blather.

The administration has cast itself as an agent of change while conducting nuclear business as usual, as in the recent, virtually empty but very self-congratulatory, "nonproliferation initiative." Timed to coincide with the Democratic National Convention, the announcement sought to deflect the criticism President Bush faces for complicity in building up Saddam Hussein's atom-bomb program.

In fact, the administration's biggest accomplishment since Desert Storm has been to belatedly push the nations in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) - which had been dormant since 1978 - to agree to expanding their list of controlled exports. Many weapons-relevant items, however, are still subject to weak controls or no controls at all.

Now, administration lobbyists are fighting a rear-guard action to kill legislation that addresses the problems the NSG ignored. The legislation tightens US export restrictions on precisely the kinds of goodies sent to Saddam and phases out US exports of bomb-grade highly enriched uranium. The measure directs the president to seek comparable restraints by the NSG, as well as specific improvements in International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards.

Leading the charge against the measure are the State and Commerce Departments. These were the agencies, it should be recalled, that were insisting until Iraqi tanks rolled into Kuwait and the Iraqi bomb program was unearthed that Saddam Hussein was a reasonable guy we could do business with.

Their target is Title III of the House-passed Export Administration Act (EAA), which is about to be taken up by a House-Senate conference. The key to enactment of the nuclear-export controls in Title III lies with the Senate conferees, who must respond to the House-passed measure and stand up to a veto threat.

THE all-out campaign against Title III is only the latest example in more than a decade of Reagan-Bush voodoo nonproliferation. Another example is the schizophrenic policy toward plutonium. On the one hand, Secretary of State James Baker III has declared North Korea's nuclear-weapons program to be "the No. 1 threat to security in Northeast Asia" and is working to make the Korean Peninsula free of plutonium and nuclear weapons. On the other hand, the Reagan-Bush ambassador for nonproliferation, Richard T.

Kennedy, had given Japan the green light to recover more than 100 tons of plutonium (equal to the US military stockpile) from irradiated nuclear fuel originally supplied by the United States. Japan has pledged to "recycle" the plutonium as fuel in its existing and future power reactors, but major delays and setbacks ensure that most of the plutonium will pile up in surplus stocks equivalent to thousands of nuclear weapons - something that makes the Koreans and Japan's other neighbors understandably nervous .

The administration gets equally low marks on the other nuclear explosive material, highly enriched uranium - the fuel once used by Iraq and still used by dozens of countries in research reactors. While paying lip service to eliminating commerce in bomb-grade uranium (the US is the world's leading exporter), the administration has refused to support a longstanding US program that would do just that. In fact, it recently put the whole global program in jeopardy by helping a major European reactor find an a lternative source of bomb-grade uranium even though a nonexplosive fuel is available from the US.

Congress should enact Title III and reverse the administration's imprudent nuclear-fuel deals with Japan and Europe before the most enduring Reagan-Bush legacy turns out to be a nuclear world too hot to handle.

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