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Stop testing -- and reduce the danger of nuclear war

The ideal nuclear arms control initiative would be one which either the United States or the Soviet Union could put forth without endangering the security of either nation; which would be simple enough not to involve extensive wrangling among the experts; which would be concrete, verifiable, and recognized worldwide as sincere; which would virtually mandate reciprocal action; and which , if accepted by both nations, would be a clear step toward reducing the danger of nuclear war.

President Reagan or General Secretary Andropov - even the US Congress - could grasp such an initiative by stating without equivocation that beginning at a time certain - say Sept. 1, 1983 - all underground tests of nuclear weapons would be suspended for a fixed period of time or until the other party renewed tests. If the other party failed to reciprocate, underground tests would be resumed. Congress could compel the administration to take such an initiative by prohibiting the expenditure of funds for underground tests for as long as the other party observed such a moratorium.

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At the present time there are no restraints on new weapons developments; technology is outpacing politics. There is no reciprocal trust on which to build restraints. The growing concern that arms control negotiations in the present format will not be productive has spawned proposals in the dozens - most of which involve further time-consuming refinements and negotiations.

Why not a mutual moratorium on all tests of nuclear weapons - a moratorium which it is to be hoped might continue until the madness of the present race has been met by agreement for deep cuts in existing weaponry?

There is precedent for such a moratorium. In March 1958 the Soviet Union announced that it was discontinuing all tests of nuclear weapons. It appealed to other nuclear powers to take similar action, adding, however, that the Soviet Union would ''naturally be free'' to resume testing if others did not stop. President Eisenhower rejected the proposal. Some tests, he said, could be conducted ''under conditions of secrecy.'' The Soviets thereupon resumed testing which continued until November 1958. By then, however, test ban negotiations were underway and on the initiative of President Eisenhower the negotiating powers refrained from testing nuclear weapons for three years. This ''mutual voluntary moratorium'' ended in September 1961 when the Soviets, after noting the French had renewed tests, resumed testing, followed two weeks later by the US.

But the example had been set. British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and President Kennedy pressed negotiations with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, and in August 1963 the US and the USSR signed the treaty which bans nuclear tests in the atmosphere, outer space, and under water.

Testing was driven underground. After a flurry of tests, they have now leveled off to about 50 per year equally divided between the US and the USSR. (France conducts about 10 such tests each year.) The Threshold Test Ban Treaty signed in 1974, observed but unratified, limits the size of underground tests to 150 kilotons.

President Reagan's fear, however, that the Soviets might cheat on the size of tests and that a ban on all tests could not be verified has put both ratification of the treaty and negotiations for a complete ban on tests in limbo. According to eminent seismologists, however, there is no basis for fear that tests of militarily significant weapons cannot be detected. Write Lynn R. Sykes and Jack F. Everden in Scientific American (October 1982): ''The technical capabilities needed to police a comprehensive test ban down to explosions of very small size unquestionably exist; the issues to be resolved are political.''

Whether the issues involved are technical (verification, counting warheads, etc.) or political, arms control negotiations are at an impasse. In the words of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger: ''. . . sometimes an impasse can be broken only by a daring departure; surely the nitpicking SALT negotiations offer little hope for the traditional approach.'' Mr. Kissinger, following an earlier proposal by Congressman Albert Gore Jr. (D) of Tennessee, then offered his ''daring departure'' - a call for the US to move toward single-warhead missiles; he hoped this would be in agreement with the Soviets, but if not then he proposes that the US unilaterally proceed to build single-warhead missiles in sufficient quantity to match the total warheads em-placed on Soviet missiles.

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For the US to suspend all underground tests for a period of time and to continue such suspension if the Soviet Union follows suit is not as daring or as expensive a departure from the traditional approach as the Gore-Kissinger call for restructuring our nuclear deterrent by building single-warhead missiles. Consider the advantages, however, of the US initiating a limited unilateral moratorium on underground tests which:

* Would not endanger the security of the US. If the Soviets were to reject the moratorium by continuing tests, the US would renew its testing.

* Would virtually mandate reciprocal action.

* Would, if ignored, expose the mendacity of the other side.

* Would, if accepted by both parties, reduce the danger of nuclear war by preventing the testing of new and old weapons.

Finally, to end on a political note, if President Reagan were to grasp the initiative and propose a moratorium on testing it would provide at least a partial answer to those Americans who doubt the sincerity of his commitment to stopping the nuclear arms race. If General Secretary Andropov were to propose a moratorium on testing, how would the US respond?

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