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U.S. May Weigh Sharing Nuclear Safety Expertise

Technology: Know-how could lessen the chance of an accident in South Asia. But aid would send mixed signals, draw criticism.

June 01, 1998|PAUL RICHTER and TYLER MARSHALL | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — The nuclear tests in South Asia have confronted the Clinton administration with a dilemma over whether to help India and Pakistan develop safety measures for their dangerous new devices, a move that could open the United States to charges of spreading nuclear know-how.

The dilemma is just one measure of how radically the political landscape in South Asia has been transformed after the series of nuclear tests carried out last month by India and Pakistan. Emotions remained high in the region Sunday in the wake of Pakistan's second round of testing.

In the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, an Indian Embassy employee was reportedly attacked and beaten by a group of young men, and a senior Pakistani official accused India of preparing for more nuclear tests.

Appearing on CNN's "Late Edition," Pakistani Foreign Minister Gohar Ayub Khan claimed that India is working toward more tests.

"I have credible information that they are already in the process of preparing a new test site . . . to blast somewhere in the first or second week in July," Khan said.

U.S. intelligence sources said they had no indication that such preparations have begun.

Meanwhile, in an apparent attempt to ease tensions, India repeated its willingness to enter into an accord with Pakistan to renounce any first use of atomic weapons.

The idea of helping both countries make their nuclear capabilities safer is driven by practical concerns.

At their current early stage, the two nations' programs are probably highly unsafe, experts say--just as the U.S. and Soviet programs were in the 1950s and early 1960s, before the superpowers developed complex safeguards.

Alarmed at a series of bomber crashes and other near-catastrophes, American officials undertook a frantic program to safeguard the U.S. arsenal and were even said to have leaked safety advice to the Soviets and the Chinese.

To do the same with India and Pakistan, however, would fly in the face of new U.S. sanctions, which prohibit military-to-military contacts with either nation, and could provoke an international outcry.

"Anything that smacks of us helping them improve their nukes at this stage is highly unlikely," one senior administration official said.

U.S. officials say their overriding objective is to shut down the nuclear programs before the weapons are actually deployed. But outside analysts say it is a safe bet that sharing safety expertise also is under consideration.

"This is a very touchy issue, because giving this out is essentially condoning the spread of nuclear technology," said Clay Bowen, an analyst at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

But, he added, "I'm very confident that behind closed doors, this is already being discussed" in Washington.

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In South Asia, an accident with a nuclear bomb could spread toxic plutonium or enriched uranium over a considerable area; some analysts theorize that an accidental explosion might even set off a war if it led one nation to mistakenly believe that it was under attack by its neighbor.

Without security measures, there is also a far greater risk that terrorists or internal dissidents could seize and use a weapon.

"It's hard [for Western countries] to be able to educate the political and military establishments, but the real risk of crude nuclear forces is starting a war by accident," French defense specialist Francois Heisbourg said.

Accidents with U.S. weapons have been hair-raising, though they have never brought about widespread loss of life.

In 1966, an accident during airborne refueling caused a B-52 bomber to dump four nuclear bombs off the coast of Spain, including one that was recovered only after a four-month search. In 1968, a B-52 caught fire over Greenland and crashed with a load of nuclear bombs, though none detonated.

In 1980, a warhead on a Titan missile stored in Damascus, Ark., was blown through a thick concrete door after the propellant in the missile under it exploded. The warhead did not detonate.

In the early stages of the Cold War, officials were also concerned that nuclear bombs might be hijacked by dissident military elements of some allied countries where the bombs were stored.

As a result, they developed a series of safeguards.

One was a system called "permissive action links," or PALs, that keeps weapons from being armed until at least two officials punch in codes after they have received clearance through a chain of command that reaches, in some cases, to the president.

U.S. nuclear weapons have been improved in recent decades to safeguard them against damage from fire, being dropped and even lightning.

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Nuclear bombs are made up of cores of radioactive material surrounded by spherical shells of highly explosive material. When this material is ignited at a number of points simultaneously, it brings the core to critical mass, and a nuclear reaction begins.

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