IT'S not easy to shake the atomic addiction. The Clinton administration proposes to resume underground nuclear testing after a nine-month moratorium, due to expire on July 1. This is not an altogether surprising move. But it is unwise and unnecessary, for it would undermine efforts to reduce nuclear proliferation without materially improving the weapons' safety or reliability.
The current United States moratorium followed the lead of Russia, which has not tested in several years, and France, which ceased last summer. The US cessation is the result of a compromise drafted by Senate Majority leader George Mitchell (D) of Maine and Sen. Mark Hatfield (R) of Oregon, both of whom favored an immediate ban, and Sen. James Exon (D) of Nebraska. The law stipulates that tests can resume after July 1 of this year but only until 1996, when a comprehensive test ban would go into effect. As
many as 15 nuclear tests can be conducted between 1993 and '96, but only to assure the continued safety and reliability of the current nuclear stockpile.
The Clinton administration is now reported to favor conducting nine tests during that period: six for the US and three for Britain. But congressional opposition to any further testing is building, and many senators now support a "no first test" policy, which would prohibit the US and Britain from conducting any nuclear tests unless another country did so first.
Several tests would gauge the performance of safety upgrades designed to prevent accidents and terrorist incidents. But the Pentagon has already stated that it will not install any upgrades on the missiles it has in service, and the law forbids testing such devices if they are not to be installed. Upgrading Trident II missiles and warheads alone would cost more than $3 billion, a sum that suddenly the cost-conscious Pentagon believes can be better spent elsewhere. Moreover, as Defense Department planners
admit, safety problems can most effectively be addressed by retiring older weapons and removing them from airplanes.
During the election campaign, candidate Clinton favored an immediate comprehensive test ban. Defense Secretary Les Aspin reportedly leans in a similar direction. Pressure to resume testing derives primarily from the Pentagon, the Department of Energy, and the three giant federal weapons labs that historically have depended on nuclear arms research for their bread and butter. If the US stands to gain little in the safety and reliability of its weapons, it stands to lose far more security by triggering a n ew round of tests. Russia and France are widely expected to follow suit if the US resumes testing. Britain, which also uses the Nevada Test Site, has pressed hard for an American resumption. China, the sole nuclear nation that has ignored the current moratorium, can be expected to move ahead without restraint. And most troubling of all, a host of near-nuclear nations ranging from Iran and Iraq to North Korea, Pakistan, and Libya will find it that much easier to pursue their programs, obtaining nuclear infor mation and materials from clandestine suppliers, especially in the chaotic remnants of the former Soviet empire.
With the next review conference for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to be held in 1995, a resumption of testing now will only further undermine the credibility of nuclear-weapons states, who have long argued that nuclear have-nots should refrain from developing weapons that they themselves refuse to relinquish. Even if the "haves" come to the table with a pledge to cease testing altogether should a comprehensive ban be reached, consensus will be more difficult to achieve with widespread testing agai n under way.
Glenn Seaborg, the Nobel Prize-winning former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, once was asked what would have happened if President Kennedy had accepted Premier Khruschev's offer to sign a comprehensive test ban 30 years ago. He concluded that even if the Soviets had cheated to the maximum extent possible, the world would still have been far ahead of where it is 50,000 nuclear weapons later. Today, verification technologies are so refined that militarily significant cheating has become a virtual
No nation has detonated a nuclear weapon in more than a year. The world would be better off if we used the current hiatus to conclude a comprehensive test ban now rather than lead the way in another round of testing and hope, like the reforming addict, that we can all summon the political will to stop for a good three years down the line.