Cleaning up after the arms race

December 13, 1993

Winning the arms race was the easy part. It's cleaning up afterward that is hard.

Shutting down a war machine takes bread out of the mouths of those who made livings building and staffing it. Hence the howls of anguish in St. Mary's County, Martin Marietta, Southern California and wherever else military facilities are closing and military contracts dwindling.

The nation's economy will survive its reorientation, and maybe even prosper as talent and resources are turned toward civilian needs. A bigger headache involves getting rid of surplus weapons that we won't be needing. Tanks are designed not to come apart even when blasted by artillery. Dismantling them costs almost as much as building them. Missiles and warheads can be broken up, but the plutonium inside can only be stored as "waste." In whose back yard shall we put it?

Instability in the former Soviet Union inflames the migrainous twinges. There, too, defense workers are losing their livelihoods -- in a dreadfully precarious economy. To keep some of the scientists and engineers busy -- and to keep them from selling their expertise to the weapons programs of developing nations -- the United States, Japan and the European Community are putting up about $100 million for science and technology centers in Moscow and Kiev.

Treaties concluded in the waning months of the Soviet Union pledged the superpowers to destroy most of their nuclear weapons and all of their chemical ones in the next 10 years. Soviet successor states accept the treaties, but none can pay to honor the pledge.

"If somebody doesn't buy this wretched stuff [nuclear weapons materials]," Deputy Prime Minister Igor Yuknnovsky said, Ukraine will just hold on to it. So the U.S. is buying some of the wretched stuff. It has earmarked $765 million to help Russia and Ukraine dismantle their warheads and will buy some weapons-grade uranium from Russia to be diluted into fuel for U.S. civilian power reactors.

Liquidating chemical weapons may present the knottiest Catch-22s. Russia's 40,000 tons, and America's 30,000 tons (some of it at Aberdeen Proving Ground) are to be gone by 2004. How the Russians will manage this is anybody's guess.

The U.S. Army wants to burn its chemical munitions in $8 billion worth of specially designed incinerators. Environmentalists warn of leakages and residues, but other environmentalists oppose either moving the chemical agents or storing them where they are. Chemical neutralization poses risks to those who do the neutralizing and increases the volume of waste to go into someone's back yard. Meanwhile, some of the chemical agents are deteriorating.

The one consoling thought is that at last the arms race is headed, however frustratingly, in the right direction -- toward less, rather than more.

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