Keep Ban on A-Tests

IN case no one has noticed, from Oct. 2, 1992, to the present, no country has tested nuclear weapons.

On that date, President Bush signed a measure that prohibited the United States from testing nuclear devices for nine months, the first time any nuclear nation has enacted a statutory ban of any duration on such activities.

Unfortunately, pressure is building to resume testing once the ban expires. On May 3, Undersecretary of Energy for Acquisition John Deutch told a congressional panel that testing will be needed to ensure the safety of warheads in the Pentagon's arsenal. The Energy Department is seeking $462 million in its fiscal '94 budget for four tests.

When the moratorium expires on July 1, President Clinton faces a choice. The '92 bill allows him, after notifying Congress, to resume a tightly limited schedule of tests until Sept. 30, 1996. After that, the moratorium resumes and continues until Russia tests.

Mr. Clinton can follow that path. Or he can follow a wiser course and seek to make the current moratorium permanent, taking the world another step toward marginalizing nuclear weapons.

Reliably verifying the safety of current stockpiles can be accomplished by means other than detonation, while the importance of US leadership on the question of a test ban is hard to overstate, especially given a rare opportunity for progress. The Russians and French have forgone testing unless the US tests, and the British cannot test because they use the US Department of Energy's Yucca Flats facility in Nevada. China currently averages one test a year.

A permanent, comprehensive test ban has been an explicit international goal ever since the objective was written into the preamble of the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty. It also appears in the preamble to the Nuclear NonProliferation Treaty, which comes up for renewal in 1995. The sizable reductions in strategic nuclear arsenals that STARTs I and II would bring when fully implemented, combined with a test ban among the major nuclear powers, could add moral weight to the NPT among nations that until now hav e balked at signing. This weight may become even more critical if the NPT renewal effort includes attempts to strengthen enforcement and inspection provisions.

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