Delegations from 93 nations are meeting this week in Geneva, operating with an eye toward the clock as they try to hammer out a nuclear test ban treaty. Indeed, if the world ever is to see such a historic pact, this would be one of the few good opportunities.
France apparently has gotten the itch to explode nuclear devices out of its system after bowing to worldwide pressure and performing only six of eight scheduled tests earlier this year. Russia is on the verge of its biggest political crisis since the overthrow of communism. But for a few more weeks, at least, Boris Yeltsin will remain in control of that country, and he has expressed support for a test ban treaty. No one can be certain what Russia's official policy will be after its election in June.That leaves China as the only potential holdout among the five admitted nuclear powers - a list that also includes the United States and Britain. Several other nations likely have the weapons, including Israel, India and Pakistan. India already has expressed its objections to a treaty.
But the rest of the world would do well to agree upon a treaty even if China and a few other nations hold out. At the very least, getting Russia's approval could prove important in coming years. At the most, the pressure of roughly 90 nations in agreement on a test ban could bring China and India into the fold.
The objections of these nations seem bizarre. China wants peaceful nuclear explosions to be allowed. Its leaders say they want to use nuclear devices in large-scale construction projects. Of course, other nations might have difficulty distinguishing between peaceful and non-peaceful explosions, and the thought of a nation willfully harming the environment for a construction project is frightening.
India, on the other hand, wants the treaty to lock in a deadline for total worldwide nuclear disarmament - an unobtainable goal if there ever was one.
The nature of these objections indicates problems and national insecurities that run deep. China, India and a few Mideast nations may never agree to a reasonable treaty, although the conference must do all it can to persuade them.
Unfortunately, the threat of nuclear war never can disappear totally, regardless of treaties. Technology, once discovered, never can be eradicated. But the world should try to contain the threat.
Last year, 178 nations did the right thing by approving an extension of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Let's hope the nations meeting in Geneva sign a test ban as the next logical step.