October 5, 1997


Banning all nuclear tests should not be controversial. After all, polls show overwhelming public support for ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which President Clinton signed last year and sent to the Senate last month.

But the Republican-dominated Senate is marching to a different drummer. When Senate debate on the treaty begins later this month, count on Jesse Helms of North Carolina, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and many of his colleagues to fight vigorously against ratification. These senators rarely see an international treaty they like. They would rather have America connected with the world mostly through its military prowess.

All presidents since Dwight D. Eisenhower, with the exception of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, have supported a comprehensive test ban teaty. Even Mr. Bush signed legislation approving a moratorium on U.S. nuclear testing.

The treaty before the Senate has been signed by the leaders of 146 nations. Mr. Clinton was the first head of government to do so. But it will go into effect only after ratification by 44 "nuclear-capable" nations.

One thing is certain: The world will not be a safer place if the Senate rejects the treaty.

Opponents of ratification claim that the treaty would not stop the nuclear proliferation. It would be impossible to verify a total ban of testing, they also contend. And, they assert, the reliability of nuclear stockpiles could not be assured without testing. Their concerns are legitimate, but also refutable.

* Proliferation may be impossible to stop, but the treaty would make it much more difficult for governments aspiring to develop nuclear capability to do so. They would be faced with a formidable task of building, undetected, sophisticated weapons that can be delivered by ballistic missiles.

* Verification of small, "low-yield" nuclear explosions would be difficult but not impossible. Experts estimate that those tests are verifiable 95 percent of the time, meaning that violators would run a great risk of being caught and punished. As for the 5 percent or so of tests that might escape detection, they would contribute little to technical knowledge. Mr. Clinton is convinced that America has the means to make the comprehensive nuclear test ban effectively verifiable.

* Reliability and safety of existing nuclear stockpiles can be maintained under the treaty, according to a wide spectrum of scientists. Tests on warheads and missiles are already being conducted successfully -- without nuclear detonations.

Scarcely anyone would argue that discouraging the development of new nuclear weapons and curbing nuclear proliferation would be harmful to peace and stability. Underground tests have cost U.S. taxpayers billions of dollars and have vented radiocative gases into the atmosphere.

The proposed comprehensive test ban would complement existing treaties banning testing in the air, on the ground and over water. All that remains is to ban the tests underground. A de facto international ban on underground testing has been in force for several years without harm to U.S. security. The treaty would make the ban permanent.

There is little to lose and much to gain from ratifying the treaty.