Russia's deadly arsenal Nuclear danger: Poorly maintained atomic weapons and power plants pose a global threat.

September 27, 1998

RUSSIA'S NEW Prime Minister Yevgeni Primakov may ultimately get things right, but he is off to a rough start. Largely lacking economic and domestic expertise, he has surrounded himself with some of the same men who so unsuccessfully tried to help Mikhail S. Gorbachev reform moribund communist policies in the waning days of the Soviet Union.

Yuri D. Maslyukov, the perestroika-era central planning chief, is back as Mr. Primakov's chief deputy. Another apparatchik of dubious skill, Viktor V. Gerashchenko, has returned as chairman of the Central Bank. Such appointments suggest Russia's free-wheeling market experiments will be curtailed. Further confusion is in store as new sets of bureaucrats will be tweaking economic programs and policies.

This is worrisome. Unless something is done quickly, instability increases the chances of something going terribly wrong with Russia's nuclear arsenal.

The country's nuclear bombs and missiles are poorly maintained. They are guarded by demoralized troops, who have not been paid for months.

Meanwhile, most of Russia's nine operating nuclear power stations are in deplorable condition. Two industrial reactors in Siberia are so dangerous regulators want them shut down to prevent "an accident of the Chernobyl type."

After he was appointed prime minister, one of Mr. Primakov's first actions was to approve money to pay nuclear defense workers. here have been sporadic strikes at nuclear installations because many workers have not been paid for months. All this has increased the possibility of unhappy workers selling nuclear material on the black market.

During President Clinton's recent visit, a new alarm system aimed at stopping nuclear smuggling was installed at Moscow's main airport. But the device comes late and is inadequate. And with much nuclear material stored on ice breakers and submarines, Russia's borders are porous.

"The Evil Empire" may be long gone. But as economic and political crises continue, Russia's unsafe nuclear facilities pose a terrible threat. Any future emergency aid should be targeted to make sure this deadly armory is guarded against accidents and will not end up in the wrong hands.

Pub Date: 9/27/98

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