Clinton drops nuclear bombshell

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With the ill-timing and injudiciousness that seems to characterise so many Clinton ad- ministration pronouncements, William Perry, the Secretary of Defense, said yesterday that the United States was considering the resumption of underground nuclear bomb tests.

Barely a month ago the non-nuclear nations agreed a Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) extension in exchange for a commitment from the Big Five powers - the US, Russia, China, Britain and France - to exercise restraint. International delegations gathered in New York concluded a month of deliberations on 12 May with grandiloquent statements heralding the end of the nuclear nightmare age.

Then last week France announced plans to carry out eight nuclear weapon tests in the Pacific over the next year, provoking outrage around the world, but particularly in Australia, New Zealand and Japan.

Undaunted, Mr Perry acknowledged the Pentagon, the White House and other US government departments were debating whether to engage in full-scale nuclear testing again, after a ban imposed by Congress in 1993. "What the discussion will be is what kind of experiments are necessary in order to maintain the integrity and reliability" of the US nuclear arsenal," he said. "The Defense Department has not taken a final decision on which alternative we'll support. We'll probably do that in the next week or two.''

Maintaining "the integrity and reliability" of the stockpiled thousands of nuclear bombs means, as a defence expert explained yesterday, ensuring the bombs detonate when required but stay safe otherwise.

Mr Perry said yesterday that alternatives under discussion ranged from no tests to small laboratory tests with an explosive capacity equivalent to that of a few pounds of TNT or a controversial new proposal for the resumption of "several hundred tons" underground tests.

This last, urged by senior Pentagon officials, would involve nuclear bombs with a destructive potential hundreds of times smaller than the Hiroshima explosion but hundreds of times bigger than the bomb that killed 168 people in Oklahoma two months ago. State Department officials are strongly opposed.