Banned Forever? New Push on Nuclear Tests Clinton Urges Senate to OK Test-Ban Treaty, but Critics Fret over Possible Loss of US Strength

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It was an idea first broached by former Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1954. Back then the goal seemed impossibly remote and idealistic. But in coming weeks, President Clinton will ask the Senate to ratify an international treaty that would ban nuclear-test explosions for all time.

Although there is wide support for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), strident opposition from conservative Republicans will likely trigger a full-blown debate over America's post-cold-war nuclear weapons policies.

Since the end of the cold war, there have been increasing calls for an overhaul of these policies. The latest came last month from the National Academy of Sciences, which urged major cuts beyond those already proposed for the arsenals of the United States and Russia. The two nations are now reducing their deployed warheads to about 5,000 apiece and have agreed in March to seek a new treaty that would slash them to 2,500 each. The academy also recommended that the former rivals forswear the use of nuclear weapons in first strikes or in retaliation for chemical or biological strikes. Conservatives, however, insist the US must retain a powerful nuclear arsenal, citing an uncertain international climate and a possible renewal of tensions with China or Russia. Further, they argue the CTBT won't inhibit nuclear proliferation and can't be verified effectively. The treaty would be enforced by means of a globe-spanning network linking treaty members' seismological systems and other detection facilities. Shock waves caused by a nuclear test anywhere in the world could be detected and reported, although even supporters agree small-scale blasts might escape detection. CTBT critics also contend the US arsenal's reliability depends on periodic test explosions to ensure warheads can withstand aging well beyond their design life spans. The US stopped producing new weapons in the late 1980s and unilaterally halted test explosions in September 1992. Russia has observed a moratorium since 1990, while France and China declared similar halts after conducting nuclear tests last year. Earlier this year, the US launched a $40 billion program to develop, over the next decade, high-speed computers and other means of simulating test blasts. As part of the Stockpile Stewardship and Management Program (SSMP), the US today was set to conduct a "subcritical" underground explosion at the Nevada Test Site - meaning it uses less nuclear material than is required for an atomic chain reaction. …