While waiting for the judge to rule on the people's right to know the recipe for the hydrogen bomb, it might be useful to note a spurious and mischievous assumption inside this constitutionally grotesque issue.

The assumption is that cages can be built around the knowledge that goes into the manufacture of nuclear weapons -- that there are secrets and that they can be kept in or let out.

The reality, however, is that while the brilliance of Enrico Fermi was needed to create the first nuclear pile, the late Nobel laureate accomplished that feat 36 years ago. And since then, hundreds of thousands of science and engineering students from dozens of countries have been trained to levels of nuclear expertise that far excel the collective understanding of all the pioneering geniuses who built the first atom bombs. The training, of course, has been pitched toward the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. But just as it is impossible to confine aeronautical engineering to civilian purposes, it is impossible to devise nuclear training that can't be adapted to the development of weapons.

In short, the cat has been out of the bag for a long, long time, as can be seen from the graduate degrees, many from American schools, held by the scientists and engineers who have helped enlarge the nuclear club.

The big secret about nuclear weapons -- clearly recorded in personal memoirs and the official history of the Manhattan Project -- was spilled out when the destruction of Hiroshima was announced. Technologically, the important revelation was that it was indeed possible to create a nuclear explosion, something that physicists and engineers were not at all certain about during the first three years of the bomb project. However, for those conversant with nuclear science and engineering, the fact that it had been done was worth a library of secret manuals.

Our technological chauvinism inspired the comforting notion that the Soviet nuclear program prospered on espionage. It probably did benefit to some extent. But, when the Soviets, traditionally strong in the required fields of science and engineering, took off in pursuit of nuclear weapons, the game had changed: The crucial ingredient was no longer pioneering genius, though that's always welcome; rather, the fact that it could be done having been demonstrated, the problem was to mobilize the people and resources to do it. No amount of American-imposed secrecy could have prevented the Russians from going nuclear, any more than it prevented the British, French, Chinese, or the Indians.

These nuclear realities are well understood in the inner recesses of the Department of Energy, which probably accounts for the seemingly bizarre indifference that The Progressive magazine initially encountered from DOE when it indicated that it planned to publish instructions for building an H-bomb. Though DOE has now gone to court to prevent the publication, it is not unlikely that the initial reaction there was to the effect that at this late stage in nuclear history, know-how is the least part of building an H-bomb. There's plenty of that around, if not in easily available manuals, then in the heads of innumerable scientists and engineers who, if necessary, can figure out the details.

About the best thing that can be said about H-bomb secrecy is that it doesn't make it easier for anyone who is mad enough to want to build one. But the value of secrecy is actually very slight. It is no substitute for political controls on nuclear weapons or for facing up to the need for a worldwide surveillance system to guard against illicit manufacture.