Chernobyl introduced the world to the lax safety procedures in nuclear plants of the now-defunct Soviet Union, but the Barents Sea was where the system's roughest edges were hidden. That is the import of the revelations by a Russian nuclear engineer, Andrei Zolotkov, who says he participated in dumping radioactive reactor wastes off Novaya Zemlya during the 1970s.
Later, as a member of the old Soviet parliament, Mr. Zolotkov must have had pangs of conscience as he began gathering the evidence for the reports that he recently released to Western environmental groups.
What he found is, indeed, chilling:
* At least 12 nuclear reactors were dumped into shallow gulfs off Novaya Zemlya, an Arctic island the Soviets had used since the 1950s as a nuclear test range. One of these reactors is believed to be inside a submarine that was sunk following a major nuclear accident.
* Three reactors from the world's first nuclear icebreaker, the Lenin, were encased in an epoxy-like substance and dropped off Novaya Zemlya in 1967. The ship had suffered a serious accident, and the Soviets simply blasted the reactors through the hull to the waters below.
* Half the dumped reactors still had their highly radioactive fuel inside.
* Thousands of containers of solid radioactive wastes from Soviet submarines and icebreakers were sunk in the same Barents Sea and Kara Sea areas as well, in some cases after holes were cut to help them reach the bottom.
* American naval vessels also dumped wastes, but Hyman Rickover realized the political implications and pushed for safer disposal during the 1960s. U. S. law since 1970 and a 1972 London convention on ocean dumping restricted dumping of even low-level wastes to depths greater than 12,000 feet. High-level wastes could not be dumped at all. The Soviets, signatories since 1976, concealed their dirty work.
It took the fall of a government to reveal the duplicity. Getting information about the extent of the dumping and the precise location of the wastes must now be a top priority. The cold Arctic waters provide much of the sea harvests that feed the world and the marine life harbored there interacts with food chains far from the Arctic.
That's plenty of justification for the expense and difficulty of international efforts to locate and remove the dangerous deposits. Organisms in oceanic ecosystems depend on the oxygen-rich Arctic waters and the teeming life they support. Troublesome problems of disposal of the highly toxic nuclear substances will remain, but for now getting the stuff off the shallow sea bottom before contamination worsens is the top priority.