MOSCOW -- While the United States was busy worrying about Russian nuclear-weapons scientists hiring themselves out to predatory despots around the globe, another deadly danger was overclouded.
Nuclear materials used for peaceful purposes here threaten the world virtually as much as those designed to blow it up -- and more immediately, at that. The accidental leak of radioactive gases from a nuclear power plant near St. Petersburg last week offered a grim reminder to anyone who had begun to forget the lessons of Chernobyl, where in 1986 the worst nuclear reactor accident in history left 31 dead and fears that thousands might have been affected by the fallout:
Nuclear materials here are handled in a way many other nations would find almost cavalier.
Nuclear power plants fall dangerously short of international safety standards, and nuclear waste is dumped with little oversight.
Most worrisome, the cost of setting things right is way beyond what this poverty-stricken nation can afford.
The damning evidence is spread across this vast land. At Chelyabinsk, a city just beyond the Urals on the edge of Siberia, high-level nuclear waste is dumped into Lake Karachai, and environmentalists fear it will seep into the water table. An hour spent standing next to the lake can produce a dosage of radiation strong enough to cause cancer, environmentalists say.
Dangerous levels of plutonium isotopes have been found in the Yenisei River in Siberia; a plant on the river in Krasnoyarsk processes nuclear waste.
Industrial wastes are often deposited wherever factories feel like dumping them. Two years ago, when Estonia was still part of the Soviet Union, children in a northeastern town began losing their hair. Officials eventually discovered a kindergarten had been built on top of a dump filled with radioactive waste.
Nuclear-powered ice breakers are refueled at sea off Murmansk, instead of taking them out of the water and to a contained area. Used reactors have been dumped into the Kara Sea, near the Arctic Ocean.
And millions of people depend on electricity from 16 Chernobyl-style reactors, although Western nations condemn them as disasters waiting to happen. Last year, 52 accidents were reported at nuclear reactors throughout the former Soviet Union, 10 of which were rated as 3 on a 7-point scale. Chernobyl was a 7.
Other similar reactors are operating in the former East Bloc countries of Bulgaria, Hungary and Czechoslovakia.
The explosion at Chernobyl plant's reactors sent a cloud of radioactive dust over large parts of Europe. Wide swaths of agricultural land in Ukraine and neighboring Belarus remain contaminated and closed to farming.
European countries dread that another Chernobyl-style accident might occur at any time, and there is little cause for optimism that their cause for fear will be eliminated.
"This country is a mess," Dmitri Litvinov, Moscow coordinator for the Greenpeace environmental group, said last week. "Every issue we work on globally is a critical issue here."
He said Greenpeace began investigating nuclear issues in the former Soviet Union two years ago with a visit to the nuclear testing region at Novaya Zemlya in the Arctic.
"We were absolutely overwhelmed by the scale of the problems," Mr. Litvinov said. "The more you know about it, the scarier it gets."
The despoiling of the environment by nuclear and other wastes in the former Soviet Union is subject to few controls. The government of the Soviet Union ruled by edict; today laws are being discussed that would protect people and land from harm, but they have not yet been passed.
Until recently, environmental research was the responsibility of 1,065 different institutions answering to 70 different ministries. The lax nuclear policy was part of a larger disregard for the environment.
"Toxic wastes are handled here just like in any other undeveloped country," Mr. Litvinov said. "They bury it or burn it."
In the days of Communist power, pollution was officially impossible. Because communism was supposed to be based on a system where workers were not exploited, the trappings of such exploitation -- pollution included -- could not be acknowledged.
"We feel about 25 percent of all the territory of the former Soviet Union is in an unbearable ecological situation," Nikolai F. Reimers, head of the Ecological Union of Russia, said in a recent interview, "and 15 percent is an ecological catastrophe zone."
Today, the general environmental situation is more dangerous than ever, he said. Russia is desperately trying to extricate itself from serious social and economic problems. A nation threatened with its very survival has little time or money to devote to environmental concerns.
"If we have no bread and our houses are not heated," Mr. Reimers said, "our ecological problems will be pushed aside."
The overall picture of nuclear power in Russia and the other republics of what is now called the Commonwealth of Independent States shows just how tenuous the entire structure is.