WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration, making a virtue of political necessity, is leaning toward a declaration that the United States would not be the first nation to resume testing of nuclear weapons, officials said yesterday.
Such a move means that no new tests would be conducted in the foreseeable future by any of the world's declared nuclear powers, except perhaps China, knowledgeable officials said yesterday.
While President Clinton has not announced a final decision, officials and outside experts said the ground had shifted in the administration's internal debate and a "no-first-test" policy was increasingly likely.
"That's the direction it's trending," a senior official said. A White House official refused to comment, saying Mr. Clinton had not made a decision.
If Mr. Clinton endorses the plan, he would be likely to announce at the same time plans for the United States to launch negotiations for a worldwide comprehensive test ban.
The administration has assigned a high priority to halting the spread of nuclear weapons. It is now in the midst of negotiations with North Korea aimed at ending that isolated regime's suspected nuclear ambitions.
In a related development yesterday, the State Department announced that Robert Gallucci, assistant secretary of state for politico-military affairs, would resume negotiations with North Korea July 14 at the two countries' missions in Geneva.
A few weeks ago, the administration seemed poised to take a far different course and move ahead with a limited program of nine new tests: six tests by the United States and three by Britain, which uses U.S. test facilities in the Nevada desert.
Britain, which wants to test a new ballistic missile to be launched from its Trident submarine, has been a strong proponent of a limited number of new tests.
But in the days since this tentative decision first was disclosed, it has become clear to administration officials that there is little fTC support in Congress for a resumption of nuclear tests.
In a lobbying effort, arms-control advocates said a resumption of tests could undermine U.S. efforts to get the worldwide Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) renewed in 1995.
Signatories to the treaty would react negatively to new U.S. tests, advocates say.
"I think we probably will get an extension of the NPT, but it will be a poisonous conference," said James F. Leonard, executive director of the Washington Council on Non-Proliferation.
Also, Russia has voiced strong opposition, fearing that Ukraine would use Western tests as an argument to cling to its own nuclear weapons.
While the Pentagon and Joint Chiefs of Staff are still reported to favor a resumption of tests to ensure the safety and reliability of nuclear weapons, the Energy Department has backed off its previous strong support for the nine-test plan, administration officials said.
The State Department had supported testing as well, but did so in part out of deference to Britain, officials said.
Now, diplomats say, Britain would understand if Mr. Clinton felt compelled not to support the nine-test plan.
The current moratorium, imposed by Congress last year, officially expires July 1. If Mr. Clinton were to decide to resume testing, he would have to notify Congress well in advance, making new tests unlikely for the rest of 1993, officials said.