LONDON — London. -- Greenpeace is pushing at an open door. If the protests, disturbances, negative polls, critical political commentary and immense press coverage of the French nuclear tests have proved anything, they've demonstrated that a nerve has been touched. People of many beliefs, from a wide variety of cultures and politics, have concluded that nuclear bombs are no longer acceptable.
Nuclear patriotism, like that of France's President Jacques Chirac, seems to be the last refuge of the scoundrel. Nuclear possession by anyone, even the superpowers, is now up for serious question. As Gen. Charles Horner, until recently head of the U.S. Space Command, says, ''the nuclear weapon is obsolete.''
Greenpeace's timing was as perfect as President Chirac's confessed ignorance of the 1995 anniversaries of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs was unforgivable. It suitably capped a three-year debate by some of America's most eminent Cold War strategists, from Robert McNamara to Michael Mazarr, from Paul Nitze to John Steinbruner, on whether America's and Russia's nuclear arsenals should come down from 20,000 warheads to 100 or to zero.
Mr. Nitze, an old Cold War hard-liner and one of the originators of the ''containment'' policy for dealing with the Soviet Union, argues that high-tech conventional weapons are now more credible and effective as deterrent threats than nuclear missiles.
The U.S., he believes, now has a substantial degree of dominance in conventional war-making capability. It was otherwise during the Cold War. Washington believed that it was only its threat of nuclear retaliation that offset Soviet conventional strength in Europe. Today it is Washington that is deterred by others' nuclear weapons; thus Mr. Nitze argues that a program to reduce their role to zero would work to maximize U.S. power.
With thinking like this in the air, it is no surprise that a chairman of the U.S. joint chiefs of staff, Gen. Colin Powell, could cross his superior, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, when he was asked to ready plans for the possible use of tactical nuclear weapons against Saddam Hussein. ''We are not going to let that genie loose,'' Mr. Powell says he told his boss.
That was in 1991. Three years later Michael Mazarr, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, proposed that ''The involvement of . . . new members of the arms-control club provides the opportunity -- the first in the history of the nuclear age -- to construct a much stronger case for a sensible nuclear end-state.'' ''Weaponless deterrence,'' he calls it.
He argues that there is now a good case for ''banning the existence of all assembled ready-for-use nuclear weapons.'' He accepts that the know-how and the raw materials can't be made to disappear. So, while outlawing the made-up weapon, he advocates institutionalizing the machinery for researching and manufacturing them. Then it can be monitored and controlled.
Sweden in the 1960s, he points out, renounced building nuclear weapons, but during all the years of the Cold War, it maintained an infrastructure and a core of up-to-date theoretical nuclear physicists on standby, ready to build the real thing if ordered to do so. Thus Swedish nuclear deterrence exists in a sublimated ** form.
The superpowers, too, given their vast nuclear infrastructure, could maintain a weaponless deterrence by dismantling all their warheads and missiles, but remain ready to start up production quickly if some unexpected threat loomed. ''The knowledge of how to rebuild the weapons is just the thing that would make abolition possible,'' Jonathan Schell wrote 10 years ago, ''because it would keep deterrence in force.''
RTC Weaponless deterrence would remove the (grossly underestimated) danger of accidental or unauthorized use of nuclear weapons. And the present nuclear powers would appear more convincing when they urge other countries not to develop nuclear arsenals of their own. A ''zero-nukes'' regime also would secure loosely controlled Russian weapons against unauthorized use or illegal sales.
The French tests have made it clear that public opinion is now more anti-nuclear than ever. If the politicians want to regain the initiative, they have to ditch the nuclear status quo.
Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.