A peril still with us

Jonathan Schell

November 18, 1992|By Jonathan Schell

AT THE Republican convention, President Bush grandly said, "I saw the chance to rid our children's dreams of the nuclear nightmare, and I did!"

It seemed a bold boast, but a moment's thought showed evasiveness in the phrasing. The Cold War had unquestionably ended, and the nuclear peril had unquestionably been diminished.

The strategic arsenals of the two superpowers, however, were still intact. Agreements to cut them back were near completion, but These, even when carried out, would reduce nuclear arsenals by only two-thirds. If Russia and the United States, even at the end of the procedural path to nuclear disarmament, each planned to retain several thousand nuclear weapons -- enough, still, to lay waste to the earth, although not as many times over as before -- it must be for a reason. And that reason must have to do with the possibility, in some circumstance or other, of using them. Hence the president's odd wording.

The speech writers' task was harder than it might seem. They wanted, certainly, to offer the president a big, clear claim to make. They could not say, however, that the nuclear peril had ended. They could not say, either, that its end was in sight, nor even that anyone had any plan to end it at any time. The solution was to speak of dreams. The children had been relieved of their nightmares. But to what extent is that relief justified?

Some recent news stories have a bearing on the matter. One is the report that the Japanese freighter Akatsuki Maru is now on its way from France to Japan with a cargo of 1.7 tons of plutonium. Plutonium, an element that did not exist on Earth until human beings created it, is the chief explosive material in hydrogen bombs. Environmental groups such as Greenpeace, whose ship Solo is tracking the Akatsuki Maru on its voyage, are mainly concerned that the plutonium will either be released into the environment in an accident or captured by terrorists, who could use it to make up to 200 nuclear bombs.

However, even if the shipment arrives safely, the transfer will subtly but powerfully alter the political and military balance in the Far East. Japan, the only nation against which nuclear weapons have been used, possesses none and has no known plans to make any, but it has in abundance the technical capacity to do so. With a stockpile of plutonium available, it would not take Japan more than a month or so, experts say, to manufacture nuclear weapons.

Whether Japan wishes to exploit it or not, this capacity will not go unnoticed in such neighboring countries as China, which possesses nuclear weapons, and North Korea, which has a program for making them. South Korea will notice that it is surrounded by actual or potential nuclear powers. No threats have been made, and no words of anger spoken, nor are they likely to be any time soon, but in the hidden councils where these Asian governments weigh the security of their countries and reflect on their nuclear strategies, "options" will be reviewed, contingency plans drawn up. Currents of thought and feeling will begin to flow whose final outcome no one can now foresee.

In the former Soviet Union, something similar is occurring. Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk said last Tuesday that he would halt the return of nuclear weapons to Russia unless Russia pays certain sums of money. In the Ukrainian parliament, voices have been raised suggesting that Ukraine should not sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Probably Mr. Kravchuk merely wishes to strengthen his bargaining position in other matters. Yet in the former Soviet lands, as in East Asia, the fears and counterfears that nuclear armaments spread can escape the control of those who first raise them.

The nuclear peril may have receded from our dreams, but in the world it remains. Under cover of our complacent belief that it has ended, it persists stubbornly even in the precincts of the defunct Cold War, and spreads quietly into new realms.

Jonathan Schell is a columnist for Newsday.

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