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U.S. Intellingence Concludes Chine Will Test Nuclear Device Soon

By R. Jeffrey Smith
The Washington Post

WASHINGTON

The U.S. intelligence community has concluded that China is about to conduct the first underground nuclear test in nearly a year, senior officials said Thursday.

The assessment is based on classified U.S. reconnaissance satellite photographs of Lop Nor, China's longtime nuclear-weapons development center, that indicate Chinese engineers recently lowered a weapon down a deep shaft in one of the final preparations for a nuclear blast, the officials said.

While U.S. government analysts have concluded that the weapon could be detonated at any time, they have predicted China probably will defer the nuclear blast until after the International Olympic Committee announces next Thursday whether to hold the 2000 Games in Beijing, the officials said.

China is eager to host the games and wants to avoid doing anything that might harm its chance, the officials said. But they predicted the test would be held within several weeks.

The U.S. Embassy in Beijing has told the government there that any new Chinese nuclear blast would undermine progress toward disarmament, officials said. Washington also has organized vigorous private protests from "a large number" of countries in Europe and Asia that want to preserve the worldwide moratorium on nuclear tests, according to a senior U.S. official.

A new Chinese test could create a new political dilemma for President Clinton, who said in a July 3 radio address outlining the U.S. commitment to a nuclear-testing moratorium that if it was "broken by another nation, I will direct the Department of Energy to conduct additional tests while seeking approval to do so from Congress."

But word of the Chinese test preparations has provoked substantial debate within the administration over whether Clinton's promise should be fulfilled, officials said. Some members of Congress have warned that Capitol Hill will not support new U.S. tests unless the Chinese conduct many new blasts and are joined by other nations.

To help decide what to do, officials said, the National Security Council has requested that the departments of State, Defense and Energy develop a variety of options for a U.S. response to the expected Chinese test.

"We would view a Chinese nuclear test with serious concern," the senior official said. "We have been actively engaged for several weeks to dissuade China from carrying out such a test ... (including) interventions at very senior levels."

U.S. officials said Undersecretary of State Lynn Davis was told during a visit to Beijing last month that China supported a comprehensive ban on nuclear testing beginning in 1996, a statement that Washington interpreted as a sign that Beijing wanted to conduct at least a few more blasts before then.

Scientists involved in the Chinese program have told visiting Westerners they need the additional tests to design new nuclear warheads containing materials that are less prone to accidental detonation, according to several sources. Chinese weapons are less sophisticated than those made by the United States and probably contain fewer safety features, the sources said.

Several officials said Washington has not made any public comment on the Chinese test preparations so far because White House advisers feared the administration would be embarrassed if Beijing decided to go forward anyway. But one official said many experts had counseled that private protests might have a greater impact than a public condemnation.