Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, told diplomats Tuesday that President Bush's opposition to banning all nuclear arms tests does not represent the view of Congress or all Americans.
He made that comment at a press conference at the United Nations as diplomatic sessions began to consider amending the 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty to also outlaw underground tests - such as those conducted at the Nevada Test Site.Almost all parties concede that the amendment has no hope of quick passage because both the United States and Great Britain have promised to veto it. The Soviet Union, however, supports it.
"For the Bush administration, this conference comes at an inopportune moment," said Owens, who has introduced a resolution in Congress calling for support of a total test ban.
"President Bush properly decried Saddam Hussein's aggressive campaign to develop nuclear weapons, and correctly points to nuclear proliferation as `one of the greatest risks to the survival of mankind.' But the president is in the awkward position of acting inconsistent with his actions in the Persian Gulf when he opposes the one measure that would slam the door on nuclear proliferation - a Comprehensive Test Ban."
Owens said that he expects his resolution supporting such a ban to pass the House in June.
Owens called the press conference in part because of suffering by Utahns from nuclear testing in Nevada.
"I authored a bill in the last Congress, which is now law, that offers compensation and an apology to those who suffered, and who continue to suffer, from diseases caused by exposure to radiation from nuclear testing," he said.
"And yet, tragically, (such suffering) did nothing to slow down continued nuclear testing in Nevada upwind from my state of Utah."
He said the average cost of each test is $160 million, "enough to provide permanent housing for over 3,000 homeless families."
Owens added, "For the nuclear powers, continued testing by the superpowers drives competition for new and exotic warheads and weapons systems. For the nuclear `have-nots,' underground testing creates political pressure to speed development of their own nuclear arsenals.
But Republican Sen. Harry Reid, whose state includes the 40-year-old Nevada Test Site, said in a news release Tuesday that Owens "has the wrong idea."
"The problem is not nuclear testing, it's nuclear arms," Reid said. "We don't have too many tests, we have too many weapons.
"We don't need to undermine our country's military security," said Reid, "This would be the wrong message for Congress to send, and I will fight any similar resolution in the Senate."
The head of the U.S. delegation to the conference, Mary Elizabeth Hoinkes, said Tuesday that not only would Washington block a total test ban amendment at the conference, but it will not participate in any future amendment conferences or pay its share of their cost.
The United States is paying about $84,000 of the approximate $600,000 cost of the current 70-nation conference, which opened Monday at U.N. Headquarters.
Iceland's finance minister, Olafur Grimmson, expressed the feelings of most of the delegates and bomb-banners when he said, "The conference should agree to continue the negotiating process, that there should be another session of the conference in two or three years' time" to adopt the ban.
Mexico's disarmament ambassador, Miguel Marin Bosch, concurred. "We know it's a foregone conclusion that the amendments will be vetoed if put to a vote," he said.
The U.S. delegate, Hoinkes, said Washington could not support the current amendments and said any future discussions should be at the expert level at the Disarmament Conference in Geneva.
Bosch, however, said the Geneva process is "dead in the water."
Hoinkes called the current conference "a pressure tactic" by the advocates of a test ban, and said they were oversimplifying a highly technical issue. She said nuclear testing actually advances disarmament, citing the U.S. progress in reducing the megatonnage of its weapons over the years by refining them.
Hoinkes took issue with critics who say a test ban would prevent Third World nations from developing nuclear weapons, noting that any country can buy the technology to assembly a crude bomb on the black market.
Testing is needed only to refine sophisticated weapons, she said, and to eliminate design flaws and make weapons safer to handle.
Test ban proponents, including representatives of Operation Greenpeace, contended that the only need for testing today is to develop new weapons, and said more cautious handling can take care of safety concerns.