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Avoid a new arms race

Published Oct. 9, 2005

President Clinton apparently has been listening to some bad advice on the subject of nuclear testing. There is scant scientific rationale _ and absolutely no geopolitical justification _ for the United States' resumption of nuclear tests. For reasons he has yet to explain, though, the president has signaled that he intends to approve a plan for nine underground explosions over the next three years once a nine-month congressional moratorium ends on July 1.

Most of the voices clamoring for a quick resumption of testing belong to members of the American nuclear bureaucracy that built up during the Cold War years. They claim that new tests are needed to assure the safety and reliability of our vast nuclear arsenal. However, more objective experts, including top Energy Department scientists and the president's own science adviser, argue that new tests are unnecessary. They advocate less dangerous and controversial methods, such as computer simulations, for monitoring our nuclear stockpile.

In the context of our government's efforts to control nuclear proliferation, a resumption of testing would be worse than unnecessary. The United States was the last country to conduct a nuclear test, and the rest of the world has informally adhered to the terms of the moratorium adopted by Congress last October. If President Clinton goes forward with his plan to join Britain in a series of new tests between now and 1996, the rest of the world is almost certain to follow that lead, too. Ambitious nuclear powers such as China would have little reason to refrain from further testing. Even more dangerous is the likelihood that a resumption of testing would undercut our efforts to marshal international pressure on would-be nuclear powers such as North Korea.

The prospect of a new arms race _ this time even more dangerous and destabilizing than those of the Cold War _ has driven many members of Congress to attempt to provide the kind of leadership that the Clinton administration should be exerting on its own. Majority votes of the House and Senate could extend the moratorium that is scheduled to expire at the end of the month.

President Clinton may already be having second thoughts about the position that the nuclear lobby has been trying to talk him into. The White House originally had been expected to announce its intention to resume testing by now, but growing congressional opposition apparently has helped to delay a formal decision.

The president should heed the counsel of those experts who do not stand to profit from a new nuclear testing race. Before Congress beats him to it, he should announce that the United States intends to keep the current moratorium in place indefinitely _ and then immediately set about the job of persuading other nuclear powers and would-be nuclear powers to make the same commitment.