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Why Not Negotiate?

This week’s underground nuclear test in Nevada remains on hold. The delay buys a few hours in which to ask why there was no comprehensive test ban treaty to stop the test in the first place.

Discussion of nuclear testing has taken a curious turn in recent weeks, as though nothing more were at stake than a public-relations Gold Cup. The least important thing about General Secretary Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s showy moratorium on nuclear testing and President Reagan’s stubborn determination to keep to his schedule is who looks best to the world. The most important is that one more chance to slow the arms race has slipped away for no good reason.

How important is that? One way to find out is to ask the kind of question that nuclear-age children ask parents: If you say that there isn’t going to be a war, why does everybody keep testing nuclear stuff?

The answer, as Robert Toth’s report from Washington on Tuesday makes clear, is complicated. Some military experts say that U.S. weapons are as high-strung as race horses and must be tested often to make sure that they can win. They also note that about 800 U.S. tests in the past 40 years have led to smaller and more accurate weapons to replace early missiles--sloppy giants that might have landed anywhere and wiped out anything.

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But other specialists say that only a handful of those 800 tests were to verify that weapons work. They say also that weapons are sophisticated enough, and that a test ban would help stop the spread of nuclear weapons beyond the borders of the five nations that have tested nuclear warheads.

Supporters of a comprehensive nuclear test ban contend that without further testing neither the United States nor the Soviet Union could be sure that its weapons would work 10 years from now--a powerful argument against either nation’s resorting to nuclear weapons. That makes sense to us, particularly in view of the fact that both the President and the general secretary keep saying that nuclear conflict is unthinkable and unwinnable,even with weapons that they think they can trust.

The most common recent defense of nuclear tests is that they are needed for components of the “Star Wars” program; some elements of Star Wars apparently are involved in Mighty Oak, the nuclear test that was postponed for technical reasons on Tuesday. But the President already has said that his strategic defense against missiles would not involve nuclear devices. The contradiction remains unexplained.

U.S. tests also are defended on the ground that we need them more than the Soviets do because their new missiles and warheads are just improvements on their old, while U.S. weapons represent great leaps of technology that must be tested or abandoned. That would mean either that U.S. weapons designers have ignored Presidents who had publicly embraced a test ban, starting with Dwight D. Eisenhower, or that the Presidents were fooling.

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The White House is right on one point. A moratorium, sealed only with a phone call or a handshake, is a fragile tool for slowing the arms race. A negotiated treaty, with safeguards against cheating, is not. Yet there are no good answers from Washington to the simplest of questions about a test ban: Why is nobody negotiating such a treaty when it seems clear that most technical hurdles were cleared seven years before the last attempt to reach agreement broke down after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan?

Many geologists believe that sneak tests would be impossible with modern detection equipment. Between them, the United States and the Soviet Union own so many warheads that they could cut the stock in half and still have 6,000 each. A way must be found to spread a test ban like a blanket over all nuclear nations. With such high stakes, diplomats surely would find a way.

So the question about why there are no negotiations demands more than glib answers. And Americans are not likely to stop asking, if for no other reason than that their nuclear-age youngsters are not going to stop asking, either.


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