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Nuclear Priorities

Nuclear weapons lost most of their strategic value when the Berlin wall came down. The old nuclear standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union, between the free world and world communism, suddenly ended.

But the nuclear question itself - how to control present and potential megatonnage - became, if anything, more complex.

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The need, now, is to bring everyone within the same nonproliferation, nondevelopment structure. An indispensable part of that structure is the long-pending Comprehensive Test Ban (CTB) treaty.

Full implementation of that treaty is largely dependent on US backing. The Clinton administration has supported the pact, though it has been slow to seek ratification by the Senate, where opposition is stubborn.

The outlook for the CTB is further clouded by the controversy surrounding a Department of Energy document that describes efforts to come up with "new or modified designs" for nuclear weapons. Critics say this puts the US on a track away from the CTB, which is supposed to prevent the development of new weapons by prohibiting test explosions.

Things, however, are not quite that simple. The kind of projects being cooked up by DOE scientists, with encouragement from the Department of Defense - such as putting old warheads in hardened new shells that can penetrate deep into the ground to attack buried bunkers - have been on the public record for quite a while. They involve innovative uses of nuclear weaponry, and they may raise concerns about US readiness to use such weapons. But they don't involve actual tests of weapons, and so don't directly violate the CTB.

Further, these projects are wrapped inside a $4 billion yearly program of "stewardship" over America's nuclear arsenal. That program was set up to ensure that existing weapons would work, short of actually firing them. The stewardship program is considered by many arms control experts a costly necessity to allay criticism that a test ban would undercut American military power. Not too surprisingly, the scientists and technicians charged with monitoring the US nuclear stockpile are using some of their ample budget to think up new potential uses for those weapons. That's their trade, and one purpose of the stewardship program, doubtless, was to keep them employed.

Two steps are now in order:

* An unequivocal statement by the administration that the US has no intention of developing new nuclear capabilities and that research tending in that direction will be stopped. Precision-guided munitions and coming electronic weapons will accomplish the same missions more efficiently and less controversially.

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* An equally unequivocal statement that the CTB remains a top priority and will be sent to the Senate this fall for ratification.

The US should concentrate on reducing the number of nuclear arms and preventing the outbreak of new races for the ultimate weapon. Any indication that Washington is still tinkering with new ways of using its nukes sends exactly the wrong message.

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