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A few days ago the world's nuclear powers set out in quest of a goal that simply must be pursued vigorously and relentlessly even though the chase could be an exercise in futility.

Meeting in Geneva, the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China are trying to work out a treaty that would ban nuclear tests around the world.The trouble is that the talks come just when it looks like North Korea may already have developed a few nuclear weapons of its own, making its neighbors want to keep pace and giving the nuclear nations an excuse to resume testing to assure the continued reliability of their nuclear arsenals.

Even if it weren't for North Korea, the nations meeting in Geneva still would have trouble coming to a meeting of the minds.

China, for example, is in the position of saying in effect the others should do as Beijing says, not as it does. Though the other major nuclear powers have declared a moratorium on testing, China has not. It insists on completing a series of tests that may take another year or two to finish. Meanwhile, it wants the other nations to hold off.

Britain is said to be in no hurry to work out a test ban treaty. France is at an uncertain crossroads. Its present government has declared a moratorium on tests and seems committed to the proposed treaty. But a new government is likely to be in power next May before the treaty is worked out and might use China's example as an excuse to opt for a series of tests.

Though the United States and Russia want a prompt ban, their resolve may not last long. President Clinton is under pressure from the Pentagon to resume tests but is resisting. Yet Clinton has acknowledged that his resistance may crumble if China does not quickly conclude its tests or if other nuclear nations resume testing. Once the United States resumed testing, it would be hard for Moscow to resist hard-liners' demands that Russia follow suit.

Why pursue a treaty, then, in the face of such daunting odds?

Because a ban on nuclear tests, particularly the above-ground variety, can come to grips with a form of global pollution far more serious than the smog and trash most environmentalists worry about.

Because the longer the major nuclear powers go on testing, the harder it is to persuade other nations not to seek and test their own weapons of mass destruction.

And because a workable ban on tests could be an indirect but effective way to eliminate the risk of nuclear holocaust. Even when conducted underground, nuclear tests are virtually impossible to keep secret. If no nation could test, eventually no nuclear nation could be entirely sure its weapons would work. Consequently, over the years there would be less and less temptation to use such weapons in a crisis.

Nearly 50 years have passed since the first atomic bombs were developed and used. Now, no matter how long it takes, the world must match that technological prowess with the political know-how required to make the world safe from nuclear annihilation.