The Cold War's Morning After

March 09, 1994

The United States and Russia are retargeting their nuclear weapons to fall harmlessly into the sea. Ukraine has agreed -- or has it? -- to give up its nuclear armory. The stories are welcome signs that the Cold War is over. But not forgotten.

For one thing, there are still nearly 50,000 nuclear warheads in the hands of the United States and the Soviet successor states. It takes time and money to get rid of them. The U.S. Energy Department is trying to dismantle 1,400 a year; over 10 years it should be possible to get the American arsenal down to a target of 3,500 warheads.

Treaties concluded with Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus require those countries to give up most nuclear warheads, too. But they cannot afford to fulfill their obligations. The United States has earmarked $765 million to help them, and President Clinton has promised still more. The U.S. also will buy weapons-grade uranium from Russia to be diluted into fuel for U.S. civilian power reactors. Getting nuclear materials out of Russian hands is a good investment.

Then there is the toxic pollution at American nuclear-weapons sites. That will take 10 years and more than $50 billion. Meanwhile, radioactive liquid wastes are still leaking from underground tanks, and engineers are not sure what mixtures of chemicals and radionuclides are in the tanks, let alone how to get them out.

Chemical weapons are a separate problem. Russia's 40,000 tons and America's 30,000 tons (some of it at Aberdeen Proving Ground) are supposed to be destroyed by 2004. The U.S. is spending $8 or $9 billion a year on this project -- and once again, the Russians have empty pockets.

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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