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8 World Leaders Back A-Test Ban

Summit: Yeltsin and heads of G-7 nations also agree to cooperate more against smuggling of nuclear material. But they retreat from efforts to shut down Soviet-era reactors.

April 21, 1996|RICHARD BOUDREAUX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — The leaders of Russia and the Group of 7 industrial democracies agreed Saturday to push for a ban on nuclear explosions and to work more closely to thwart the smuggling of bomb-making materials by terrorists and rogue states.

But the most powerful gathering ever devoted to problems of nuclear safety retreated from prior efforts to shut down dozens of leak-prone reactors that imperil communities across the former Soviet Bloc, calling instead for the reactors to be modernized and their lives prolonged.

In two small steps aimed at making nuclear power seem safer, President Boris N. Yeltsin agreed to make Russia liable under international law for future accidents at its reactors and to stop dumping nuclear submarine waste into the Sea of Japan.

The daylong summit in the Kremlin was aimed mostly at dealing with the fallen Soviet empire's perilous legacy of nuclear power plants and weapons. It brought together Yeltsin, President Clinton and the leaders of Britain, France, Italy, Germany, Canada and Japan six days before the anniversary of the 1986 reactor explosion at Chernobyl, Ukraine, the world's worst nuclear catastrophe.

Joined for part of the session by Ukrainian President Leonid D. Kuchma, the leaders broke an impasse over his demand for new Western financing and upheld a joint commitment to shut Chernobyl's two still-functioning reactors by the year 2000.

"As we approach the 10th anniversary of the Chernobyl accident, it is our shared objective that such a catastrophe cannot recur," the summit leaders said in a joint communique, which pledged "absolute priority to safety in the use of nuclear energy."

The summit was a setback for environmentalists, who argue that the risk of "another Chernobyl" remains high as long as world leaders ignore a 1994 G-7 pledge to "promote an early closure" of at least the 26 Chernobyl-type reactors still generating energy.

Prominent scientists from Russia, the United States and other nations, meeting for a shadow summit in Moscow last week, called for a shutdown of all 67 Soviet-designed reactors and a $10-billion G-7 fund to develop alternative sources of energy throughout the old Soviet Bloc.

The G-7 nations, which have already pledged $3 billion for Chernobyl, did agree Saturday to fund additional work to reinforce the cracked concrete tomb encasing its stricken reactor and 200 tons of radioactive material.

But the summit produced no other fresh aid commitments, and without them Russia and other former Soviet republics say the dangerous plants cannot be closed.

Even so, Clinton hailed the summit as a milestone in his administration's effort to reduce nuclear threats--along with putting into force the START I treaty to reduce weapons stocks, freezing North Korea's bomb-making program and getting an extension of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

"Today we took yet another step back from the nuclear precipice," Clinton told reporters.

French President Jacques Chirac, co-host of the summit, called it "an important step in the direction of better security in the world of tomorrow."

The summit produced two incontestable achievements: the test ban agreement and the anti-smuggling effort.

Until this year, Russia and France had resisted joining Britain and the United States in supporting a ban on all nuclear weapons testing and other nuclear explosions.

Chirac assented in January after a series of controversial tests that France conducted in the South Pacific. Yeltsin's assent came at the summit.

That assent leaves China the lone member of the "nuclear club"--the five nations that admit to having nuclear arms--opposing the drive to conclude a test ban treaty for signing in September at the United Nations. Yeltsin, who plans to visit China in the coming week, told reporters he will "work with China . . . [and] persuade it to sign this treaty so it would be comprehensive and eternal."

Scientists monitoring the summit said that Yeltsin, who has favored a test ban since last year, apparently persuaded his reluctant and powerful Atomic Energy Ministry to go along in exchange for an understanding with the West that the proposed treaty would not exclude computer-simulated explosions that allow for further perfection of nuclear weapons.

The anti-smuggling drive will involve what Clinton called "dramatically increasing cooperation" among police, customs officials and intelligence officers of the eight nations. It is aimed mainly at keeping plutonium and enriched uranium--the stuff of bombs--from leaking out of stockpiles in the former Soviet Union and into dangerous hands.

So far, known thefts from Russian stockpiles have not involved enough fissile material to make bombs, and there has yet to be a serious act of nuclear terrorism. But Western scientists say that Russia has only begun to secure its far-flung stockpiles against theft, accident and sabotage.

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