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Nuclear steps to take now

Looming over the headline issues of the day is the prevention of humanity's annihilation through nuclear war. Prevention demands control of the weapons of nuclear destruction. Control demands limiting the tests of ever newer and bigger bombs. Now almost a third of US senators have joined those other Americans calling for ratification of two test-ban treaties that already exist. Here is a positive, high-level initiative to put beside all the grass-roots antinuclear protest of this Hiroshima anniversary week.

By heeding the senators' urgings, President Reagan could offset the impression that he does not give the necessary immediate priority to nuclear control. He cites progress in the START negotiations, but these are expected to take years. The public focus remains on his opposition to other steps that have become highly symbolic. He strenuously lobbies against the nuclear freeze in Congress. He puts a hold on the comprehensive test ban treaty negotiations between the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union that have been supported by five previous US administrations.

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Now is no time to abandon the vigorous, wholehearted pursuit of the total ban on nuclear weapons tests which the US promised to seek in agreeing to the partial test ban treaty of 1963. This is also called for by the 31 senators who seek ratification of the two lesser treaties already signed. They include eight members of Mr. Reagan's own party, such as Senators Mathias, Kassebaum, Stafford , and Chafee.

The unratified US-Soviet treaties are the threshold test ban treaty of 1974 limiting underground nuclear weapons tests to the equivalent of 150 kilotons of TNT (roughly 10 times the Hiroshima bomb); and the treaty of 1976 limiting peaceful nuclear test explosions to the same yield. Though previous administrations found the verification risks acceptable, the Reagan administration expresses doubts and wants new negotiations with Moscow. Only when these are completed to its satisfaction would the administration consider resuming the comprehensive test ban talks.

Yet these treaties have protocols whose observance would in itself provide the US with Soviet data making the verification process more certain. The 1976 treaty includes a breakthrough toward on-site inspections.

President Reagan is properly concerned with verification. But he has to avoid the appearance of reopening already agreed verification measures as a diversionary tactic. He could do so by listening to those senators who, like so many people across the world, yearn for action against nuclear catastrophe now instead of in some dim tomorrow.

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