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Extend Nuclear Treaty

THE Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) remains a cornerstone of efforts to curb nuclear weapons. It deserves to be renewed indefinitely at its review conference in New York next April.

Yet when the third preparatory meeting for April's gathering ended last Friday, many nonnuclear states raised the prospect of rejecting an indefinite extension and supporting a limited one, perhaps as short as five or 10 years. Among their complaints: The nuclear-weapons states still have substantial stockpiles; they haven't met requirements that call for the elimination of nuclear weapons; the nuclear states have made insufficient progress toward a comprehensive test-ban treaty; and the ``haves'' are not giving ``have nots'' peaceful nuclear technologies, which the treaty permits.

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That nuclear-weapons states still have arsenals is undeniable, but so is progress in reducing them. From the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the destruction of tactical and medium-range nuclear weapons to the two strategic arms-reduction treaties, the United States and Russia have taken measurable strides toward reducing stockpiles. Progress will continue, especially if Ukraine, which gained nuclear capability during the Soviet breakup, ratifies START I.

Further evidence that the US takes the NPT regime seriously came last week, when it put 10 tons of highly enriched uranium from a weapons facility at Oak Ridge, Tenn., under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards. This stands in stark contrast to North Korea, which refuses to allow IAEA inspections of suspected nuclear-weapons production sites.

As for refusing to share peaceful nuclear technology with NPT nations, this is most apparent when a signatory, such as Iraq, is thought to be building nuclear weapons. Yet in other areas, the US is working against its own NPT position. In comprehensive test-ban talks, for example, the US seeks a 10-year limit on such a ban. Nonnuclear states rightly ask why Washington needs to test if it is striving to meet the NPT's disarmament requirements. Dropping the insistence on a test-ban limit could shore up support for indefinite extension of the NPT.

Giving the treaty a limited extension only leads to uncertainty. And uncertainty may be all that some countries need to convince themselves that they must have nuclear weapons. The NPT faces challenges, but it remains better than nothing. It deserves unlimited extension.