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Shared nuclear knowledge: help or hindrance to peace?

Should the United States jealously guard its store of nuclear technology -- or share the knowledge? The Carter administration took the first option. It argued that sharing advanced nuclear technology with nonweapons nations increases the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation.

President Reagan sounded a very different note in his July 16 statement on nuclear policy. Encouraged by that brief statement, the Illinois-based American Nuclear Society (ANS) believes the new administration will correct its predecessor's mistakes by:

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* Seeing world tensions, rather than nuclear technology itself, as the cause of the nuclear proliferation problem.

* Cooperating more fully with less-developed nations to share the benefits of nuclear technology.

* Supporting the development of nuclear breeder reactors to turn today's nuclear fuel wastes into a new energy source for an energy-hungry world.

The President told the nation last week that the United States will "strive to reduce the motivation for acquiring nuclear explosives by working to improve regional and global stability and to promote understanding of the legitimate security concerns of other states." He warned that unless the US again becomes "a predictable and reliable partner for peaceful nuclear cooperation," then "other countries will tend to go their own ways and our influence will diminish."

Reagan's support for international nuclear cooperation comes as no surprise to former Carter administration official Richard A. Lewis. Now the Argonne National Laboratory's director of engineering, this nuclear scientist says, "The Reagan administration policy was written by men who served under Carter and learned what was wrong with the Carter policies." He says the new policy is a welcome return to "the cooperative attitudes reflected in the Atoms for Peace Program that began in 1954 . . . and in the diplomatic initiatives leading to formation of the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] in 1957, and passage into force of the NPT [nonproliferation treaty] in 1970."

Dr. Lewis told an ANS briefing in Chicago July 22 that "the only thing that today effectively restrains nations from developing a stockpile of nuclear weapons is their judgment that they have more to gain by not developing them." This key restraint on nuclear proliferation, he said, depends on the United States sharing its nuclear technology.

According to Lewis and other ANS nuclear experts, Carter's policies actually repudiated the terms of the IAEA and NPT agreements. This breach, they say, infuriated other nations. Based on their regular visits overseas, the ANS scientists report that less-developed countries feel entitled to full access to American nuclear technology in return for giving up weapons development and accepting international inspection of nuclear facilities.

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ANS president Manning Muntzing, a lawyer and former director of regulations for the US Atomic Energy Commission, told the seminar that Israel's June 7 attack on Iraq's Osirak research reactor emphasized the urgent need for international nuclear cooperation. Along with other speackers, he said energy shortages, food needs, and population pressures all are increasing world tensions and pushing countries down the nuclear path.

Mr. Muntzing said high-technology nations have an obligation to develop nuclear power. "If he advanced nations were to rely more heavily on nuclear power and synthetic fuels," he explained, "their demand for oil would diminish, permitting greater availability [of oil] to less industrialized nations."

Robert R. Lee, project manager for the utility industry's Electric Power Research Institute in California, said "the dangers of nuclear weapons may be best controlled by full consideration of the interconnections of energy and food supply needs, population growth, and political aspirations of the people of the world. Nuclear power as an energy source makes such a strong, positive contribution to meeting these needs and to reducing world tensions, that we cannot deny these benefits to the rest of the world and should not deny them to ourselves."

Welcoming the shift away from Carter administration policies, Dr. Lee said, "Careful and responsible use of nuclear power can do more to reduce the chances of nuclear war than concentration solely on limiting acquisition of nucclear weapons."

Other speakers said the US has been guilty of trying to use its nuclear technology as a weapon, in the same way that the Middle East's OPEC nations have used their oil. They see the apparent switch announced by President Reagan last week as a chance for the United States to meet its own energy needs, honor its international treaty obligations, and reestablish important international friendships.

But the ANS speakers also warned that the prospect of the administration falling back into Democratic hands after eight years, if not four, gives little time for new nuclear policies to take hold -- and certainly too little time for the American nuclear industry to make the massive investment needed to restart America's stalled nuclear power program.

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