President Clinton called Friday for a permanent ban on all nuclear testing in an effort to prevent additional nations from developing nuclear weapons.
Calling his decision “an historic milestone in our efforts to reduce the nuclear threat,” Clinton said the move, which comes 50 years after the United States dropped the first nuclear bomb, was designed to speed negotiations for a treaty that would end testing worldwide.
Those negotiations, involving representatives from 38 nations in Geneva, are bogged down because the United States, at least until Friday, and Russia wanted the treaty to include an exception that would allow them to conduct small-scale nuclear tests to ensure the reliability of their arsenals - an exception many developing nations objected to.
“A comprehensive test ban is the right step as we continue pulling back from the nuclear precipice, a precipice which we began to live with 50 years ago this week,” Clinton told reporters.
“It moves us one step closer to the day when no nuclear weapons are detonated anywhere on the face of the earth.”
With Friday’s announcement, Clinton ended a fierce two-month-long debate in his administration in which senior Pentagon officials had wanted the proposed comprehensive test ban treaty to allow nuclear tests with a force equal to 500 tons of TNT. The bomb dropped on Hiroshima had a force equivalent to 15,000 tons of TNT.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff insisted that such tests were needed to maintain the reliability of the nation’s stockpile of 7,000 nuclear weapons. But Clinton, relying on the advice of Defense Secretary William J. Perry and Energy Secretary Hazel O’Leary, said reliability could be assured without such low-level tests.
To address the Pentagon’s fears and win its backing, the president said he would reserve the right to invoke America’s supreme national interests under a test-ban treaty to conduct tests “if the safety or reliability of our nuclear deterrent could no longer be certified.”
Clinton’s decision clashes with the views of the Republican-led Senate.
Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., who is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement: “I remain to be convinced that we can monitor the reliability, safety and accuracy of our nuclear weapons without the ability to test them. These weapons are machines, and will break down despite the intense scrutiny they undergo.”