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As 10 Russian inspectors watched, one solid-fuel rocket stage from a deadly three-stage U.S. Peacekeeper missile was blown up and burned in Utah's west desert this week. It was an extremely modest first step in reducing the vast nuclear arsenals of both nations, but a beginning has to be made somewhere.

This was the first destruction of at least a portion of an intercontinental ballistic missile or ICBM under the START I missile reduction treaty between the United States and Russia. The treaty was ratified in 1991 and took effect last December.In many respects, the colorful Utah explosion was merely a goodwill gesture since START I does not require ICBM stages to be eliminated.

However, the treaty calls for Russian - or representatives of other nuclear-equipped former Soviet states - to be observers if ICBMs are destroyed.

Under START I, the United States and other signers will reduce their nuclear arsenals from 21,000 warheads to 12,000 warheads over the next seven years. This is to be done by eliminating some long-range bombers, some ICBM launch silos and submarine missile launch tubes.

A more ambitious START II treaty has been signed and is awaiting ratification in the U.S. Senate. It would reduce multi-warhead missiles such as the Peacekeeper and trim conventional forces as well.

The Peacekeeper missiles - which cost $70 million each to build - can carry 10 nuclear warheads aimed at different targets. The U.S. Air Force has about 50 of them, an inventory worth at least $3.5 billion.

If the three-stage missiles are dismantled one stage at a time, the process could take many years. Yet however slow the pace, the weapons at least are being destroyed instead of more being built.

In the explosion and fire in the west desert this week, the Peacekeeper finally lived up to its name, but in a way the builders hadn't quite planned.