Washington. -- For 10 years, Americans have been far ahead of their president and the Pentagon on the need for a nuclear test ban.
Since 1982, at least 70 percent of those polled have regularly favored a halt to all nuclear tests. Now, Congress is listening and acting, despite strong objections from the White House.
xTC It was no great surprise on June 4, when the House voted 237-167 for a one-year moratorium. The shocker was the 68-26 Senate vote on Aug. 3, which for the first time suggests that a probable presidential veto could be answered by a congressional override.
How and why has this particular challenge to the administration developed? On its face, it almost seems to be a case of democracy breaking out on Capitol Hill.
Seventy percent of Americans polled on the subject of nuclear testing during the last 10 years have consistently favored an end to all tests. Now that the Cold War is over, that number is going up.
Thirty-two Nobel laureates, including notable experts such as Hans Bethe and Glenn Seaborg, appealed recently to the Congress and president to give "the fullest support to the prompt cessation of nuclear-weapons testing." Congress seems to be listening.
There are also logical doubts about the need for continued testing. With formal agreements to reduce existing U.S. and Russian arsenals by more than 75 percent, no case can be made for tests to develop new weapons. The familiar arguments that further testing is necessary to ensure the safety and reliability of U.S. weapons are also wearing thin.
American weapons are the best-tested in the world. We have conducted 940 test explosions, nearly half of those since 1945. Their reliability is assured and can be maintained for years, even decades, by disassembly and inspection, according to experts such as Ray Kidder of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
Safety is even more assured. As a Navy pilot and nuclear planner, I have been involved with nuclear weapons at all levels ++ of command since 1955.
I have seen them in fires and crunched in machinery aboard Navy carriers. They have been in aircraft accidents, consumed in fires, accidentally dropped from 20,000 feet in the air and blown 600 feet out of missile silos.
Over the last 46 years, the military has handled (and mishandled) more than 60,000 nuclear weapons, and not once has an accident resulted in the release of nuclear explosive force.
Furthermore, safety and reliability don't seem uppermost in the mind of Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney. In his 1992 annual report to the president and Congress, he described two nuclear tests planned this year, Hunters Trophy and Diamond Fortune. Neither relate to safety or reliability. Both are to improve the performance of U.S. weapons in a nuclear war.
In light of his candor, it is easy to understand the growing skepticism in Congress and its willingness to believe Hans Bethe, a member of the Manhattan Project, who said that the only reason to go on testing is to develop new weapons.
A final reason for Congress to press the president on ending nuclear tests is the concern about the danger of the spread of nuclear weapons to Third World nations. Even the president professes to recognize that danger.
On July 13, he announced that the United States would no longer produce highly enriched uranium and plutonium for nuclear weapons. The reason, he said, was to help keep other nations, particularly in the Middle East, from building their own nuclear weapons.
But this was an utterly empty gesture. Congress and the whole world know that the United States already has a glut of nuclear material and hasn't produced any for years.
If the president really wants to prevent the proliferation of weapons, he should follow the counsel of his own Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. Discussing efforts to maintain international support for the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the agency stated:
"Many non-nuclear weapon states continue to assert that the goals and objectives of Article VI (of the treaty) have not been achieved and that a comprehensive test ban is essential to meet Article VI's goals."
If this action by Congress to end nuclear tests, which only perpetuate nuclear competition and encourage the spread of such weapons, is vetoed, it should be doubly easy this time to hand the president a defeat on the issue.
Not only would an override strengthen U.S. leadership in bringing about an end to the nuclear-arms race, it would also be good politics to take this long-overdue action, knowing that it will have the approval of a large majority of American voters.
Rear Adm. Eugene J. Carroll Jr. (Ret.) is deputy director of the Center for Defense Information.