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BY RENOUNCING U.S. N-TESTS, CLINTON TAKES THE HIGH ROAD

Though the threat of nuclear war may never disappear entirely, there are ways to minimize the risk through patient, farsighted diplomacy.

President Clinton took just such a step the other day with his decision to renounce further U.S. nuclear tests unless their resumption is ever justified by heightened international tensions.This White House move flies in the face of advice from Pentagon advisers, who have been insisting that a series of small tests is needed is assure the continued safety and workability of existing stockpiles of U.S. nuclear weapons.

But that claim has been rendered untenable by the development of computer simulations that can keep the U.S. arsenal reliable without either the radioactive or political fallout from the usual kinds of nuclear tests.

This disparity raises doubts about whether the Pentagon is as sophisticated as it needs to be and ought to prompt a searching review of the military's technological expertise to make sure it is keeping pace with the latest developments.

Meanwhile, the benefits of the Clinton decision far outweigh the risks.

If the United States had resumed small tests now, the world could quickly have become a more dangerous place. It would have been harder to muster world opinion against the tests being planned by France and China. Some nations might have felt compelled to undertake small tests of their own - and it's hard to determine whether small tests are designed to check existing weapons or to develop new ones. Other nuclear nations, lacking the technological ability to conduct small tests, might have felt they had an excuse for undertaking full-scale nuclear blasts. Likewise, non-nuclear nations might have been given an incentive to stop relying on conventional military hardware alone and start buying or developing weapons of mass destruction.

The upshot would have been an international climate hostile to current negotiations in Geneva aimed at developing a comprehensive new nuclear test ban treaty next year.

No tests could and should eventually mean progressively less reliance on nuclear weapons, less risk of nuclear war, and even less danger of nuclear blackmail. With Clinton's encouraging example before it, the world simply must keep working in this direction.