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Where the US and USSR can get together on arms control

A nuclear war between the superpowers could well be triggered by a ''new nuclear weapons nation.'' Furthermore, we are entering a new and more dangerous stage of nuclear weapons proliferation in which possession of the bomb by conflict-prone countries is increasingly probable. The technical and political restraints that resulted in relative stability in the spread of nuclear weapons for 35 years have gradually eroded and the pressures to ''go nuclear'' have intensified.

Fortunately, nonproliferation is the area of arms control in which there is a strong identity of interest between the US and USSR. Significant cooperation has continued over many years during the development of the international safeguards system administered by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the negotiation of the Nonproliferation Treaty.

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Following these precedents, the two countries should jointly develop and implement a broad program for curtailing the spread of nuclear weapons. This program would include both a joint effort to strengthen the IAEA's system and a reciprocal agreement to strengthen their own nonproliferation measures; i.e. to use incentives and leverage to get both suppliers and users of peaceful nuclear equipment, materials, and technical information to accept full IAEA safeguards and forswear plutonium production and use.

This effort will lack credibility if the superpowers fail to curtail their arms race, in accordance with their obligation under the Nonproliferation Treaty. Progress or lack of progress in the INF (intermediate nuclear forces) and START talks will be of critical importance in the nonproliferation effort.

The IAEA's safeguards regime is the centerpiece of the administration's nonproliferation effort, yet doubts about the IAEA's ability to carry out its mandate are rising. The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission has declared that the agency's safeguards system is inadequate for certain facilities, and leading IAEA officials have emphasized the agency's circumscribed role.

The IAEA's regulations need to be broadened to cover the most advanced facilities and to strengthen the verification procedures. The budget for safeguards needs to be increased to provide for more inspectors and better surveillance equipment. Most important, all member states must cooperate fully with IAEA officials and recognize the benefits to all in keeping the agency free of international politics.

As the leading exporter of peaceful nuclear technology, the US bears the most responsibility for maintaining effective bilateral safeguards controls. Control of plutonium, the major component of nuclear weapons, is the heart of the matter. Nuclear power plants produce, in their spent fuel elements, plutonium that is removable in reprocessing plants. And the proposed breeder reactor would be fueled with plutonium and produce more than it would consume. According to leading experts, if reprocessing plants and breeder reactors are built around the world, the vast quantity of plutonium produced cannot be safeguarded effectively under any system.

Contrary to earlier estimates, there is more than enough natural and low-enriched uranium to run all of the world's reactors in the foreseeable future. The US should abandon reprocessing and breeder development and forbid reprocessing of US-supplied fuel abroad. It should guarantee to supply low-enriched uranium fuel abroad and promote international spent fuel storage, joint research and development centers, and other means to limit reprocessing and enrichment by individual countries.

Unfortunately, France, West Germany, Italy, Switzerland, and several other countries have shown their willingness to supply nuclear equipment and material without requiring adequate safeguards. And such countries as India, Pakistan, Argentina, and Brazil are installing nuclear power complexes with the capability to produce the complete fuel cycle and, accordingly, nuclear weapons.

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The US has yet to make an all-out, imaginative effort to persuade both the suppliers and the consumers to cooperate in avoiding plutonium-based energy and the spread of nuclear weapons. It may be necessary to work out suppliers' agreements and international marketing agreements that include Soviet-bloc countries, in order that competing suppliers will insist on the acceptance of full-scope IAEA safeguards. Multilateral guarantees of economic nuclear fuel supply can be given to relieve countries of the pressure to build national facilities. We should also be willing to apply effective sanctions as a last resort. With the Russians following a parallel course, the political leverage should be adequate.

The climate exists for a more positive arms control approach to the new Soviet leadership. Discussions about nonproliferation would set up an additional bargaining table between the superpowers, both deeply concerned with avoiding a nuclear holocaust.

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