Despite the well-known Soviet reluctance to tolerate snooping by foreigners, a team of private American scientists is being allowed to set up three seismic-monitoring stations on Soviet territory--one fewer than 100 miles from the main Soviet nuclear-test site at Semipalatinsk. Whether the arrangements will facilitate an agreement on a nuclear-test ban, as the U.S. participants hope, remains to be seen. But it is encouraging that Moscow's approval of the private U.S. expedition came shortly before the Soviet and American governments agreed in principle to discuss verification problems of a nuclear-test ban.
An agreement was signed in late May between the Academy of Sciences of the U.S.S.R. and the Natural Resources Defense Council, a private anti-nuclear-testing group based in New York. The agreement provides for the establishment of three seismic stations in each country, jointly manned by U.S. and Soviet scientists. The Soviets have made no move to send their experts to this country, but the U.S. team has already arrived in Moscow.
The Reagan Administration has been wary about the arrangement, which is frankly aimed at discrediting the Administration's use of the verification issue to sidestep Soviet proposals for a mutual moratorium on nuclear tests. But Washington did not interfere with the shipment of sensitive instruments to the Soviet Union for use by the U.S. scientists. Apparently even the Administration thinks that something useful may come of the exercise.
During the Carter Administration U.S. and Soviet negotiators made significant progress toward agreement on a comprehensive nuclear-test ban, including the placement of seismic monitors at 10 sites in each country for verification of compliance. However, remaining differences were never worked out. The talks were relegated to a second priority behind the SALT II negotiations on strategic-missile restraints, and were broken off altogether after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
The Reagan Administration has resisted pressures to resume the negotiations, citing unsolved verification issues.
The scientific community is divided concerning the seriousness of verification problems in any test ban, but there is no question that problems exist. The need is for seismic-verification techniques capable of detecting and accurately measuring even very small nuclear explosions, and distinguishing between them and shocks set off by earthquakes and tremors. Unfortunately, the underlying geology of the Nevada test site and the Soviet testing areas is quite different. Whereas seismic signals from the U.S. tests are routinely published, no comparable information is available from the Soviet side. Thus no one knows for sure how to interpret seismic signals from the Soviet test site.
The opportunity to monitor seismic instruments so close to the Soviet nuclear-test site should provide valuable information. Unfortunately, though, it is unlikely to be sufficient precisely because the Soviets have suspended nuclear tests and have not obligated themselves to allow the Americans to remain after testing resumes. Thus the U.S. team will be able to measure seismic signals from earthquakes and U.S. tests in Nevada, but may not be able to compare them with signals from Soviet tests.
The private arrangement hardly proves, as the U.S. participants like to believe, that verification is not a genuine barrier to a test-ban treaty. By allowing Americans to monitor black boxes on Soviet territory, the Russians are not necessarily demonstrating a willingness to allow adequate on-site investigation of suspicious seismic events. Still, the development may be more than a propaganda attempt to embarrass the Reagan Administration. It is just possible that Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev is conditioning his own military bureaucracy to the idea of accepting meaningful on-site inspections.
If the anticipated official talks indicate that this is true, President Reagan will find it much harder to justify his Administration's continuing resistance to a resumption of serious test-ban talks.