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Commit to Test Ban

THE Bush administration, led by Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, moved quickly last week to silence rumors that it was ready to end, or at least sharply cut back, underground testing of nuclear weapons. Secretary Cheney warned that the United States could limit future options if it stopped such testing now.

Perhaps that makes sense from the point of view of someone who is struggling to maintain a credible US military establishment against growing pressures to further trim the Pentagon's budget, and who sees a world where the threats to peace are numerous and nuclear programs are still much in demand.

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But which better serves Americans' security interests - a world where we encourage the continued building and testing of nuclear weapons, or one where the US takes the lead in stopping that activity?

The nuclear nonproliferation treaty (NPT) comes up for extension in 1995, and many current non-nuclear signatories see a comprehensive test ban as a measure of the seriousness of the current nuclear powers. The NPT requires "good faith negotiations" to end the nuclear arms race. That race no longer exists as a superpower competition. The old Soviet test grounds lie in Kazakhstan. Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who visits Washington this month, would welcome a test ban.

The source of most concern, currently, is nuclear development by smaller, regional powers. The NPT is the best tool to curtail such development, but continued US testing tells other countries that Washington wants its nuclear options left open. Why should potential nuclear nations choose a different course?

Perhaps a low level of testing might be maintained over the next couple of years to work out safety problems with certain kinds of warheads. But most of those problems can be addressed through retirement or replacement of the warheads (already under way) or through improved methods of handling.

The question is not whether the US will maintain its nuclear defenses. The country has 12,000 warheads on hand.

It's whether the US will seize the opportunity offered by the end of the cold war to lead the world away from the nuclear brink, beginning with a commitment to end all testing. France, Russia and the other formerly Soviet nuclear powers, the United Kingdom, and even China would probably follow.

Legislation to accomplish this is before Congress now. The House is likely to pass it this week; the Senate should do likewise. Will the administration come around?

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