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Beyond theory to reality: Can the world disarm?

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A world without nuclear weapons sounds like a state of grace, compared with the current condition. Is there any way to reach that world? Would it actually be safer than today's? Clearly the knowledge of how to construct nuclear warheads will be forever in men's minds. To many people, the arms arsenals themselves seem similarly immortal.

As a symbol of the technological persistence of nuclear weapons, consider what happens to United States warheads when they become obsolete or reach the end of their useful lives. They are not thrown away so much as reincarnated.

When these weapons are retired, as they are every day at the Pantex weapons plant near Amarillo, Texas, parts such as casings and electronics can be simply shredded and buried. But the radioactive core is too expensive and dangerous to dispose of, and instead is recycled into the next generation of weapons.

Thus the plutonium 239 in Titan 2 missiles now being dismantled may become the fissionable soul of tomorrow's MX missile. Thirty years from now it may be transformed into an X-ray laser, and so on, in a progression stretching as far as military planners can imagine.

Will there ever be an end to this line of arms? Do people want it to end? Almost everyone who lays claim to being an expert on the superpower balance will preface opinions with a perfunctory reference to the desirability of a nuclear-free world.

The fact is that most of them don't really mean it, except as the longest of long-term goals. Since the early 1960s, the conventional wisdom of the present and former US officials who are called ``the strategic community'' has been that talking about complete disarmament is not quite respectable.

The only people clamoring to turn all nuclear weapons into dust are the most liberal of the peace-group activists - and President Reagan and his loyal followers. (Of course, these opposite political poles differ wildly in how this nirvana is to be reached, and what it will look like when people get there.)

Since the Strategic Defense Initiative was launched in 1983, the President has stubbornly insisted that its goal is to make nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete, nothing less. At the Iceland demi-summit he apparently discussed, albeit reluctantly, the possibility of scrapping all nuclear weapons in the foreseeable future.

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