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How Worrisome the Soviet Nuke Problem? : Dealing with nuclear fears generated by the Soviet crisis

The whole world seems to be talking about Soviet disarray and what that means for the huge Soviet stockpile of nuclear warheads. The problem is inherently frightening: Consider all these potentially quarreling ministates harboring nuclear arms within their territories.

Still, very little of the scariest talk seems to come from people who know for certain where, and how tightly guarded, the warheads are. And what small amount of information does seem authentic is, so far at least, somewhat reassuring.

GOOD SIGNS: The most comforting report came from President Bush during a joint press conference Thursday with British Prime Minister John Major. To date, Bush said, there has been no cause for official concern. He said he wants guarantees from the Soviets that their nuclear safeguards will continue to work, but he said “the last thing the world needs now is some kind of nuclear scare. . . . “

One reassurance to Bush during the turmoil after the coup was U.S. spy satellite pictures of Soviet mobile missiles capable of reaching U.S. targets; the photographs showed the missiles were being moved back to bases and away from patterns of deployment in which they could have been launched.

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The withdrawals seem to have been intended to dispel any doubts about whether the missiles were under tight central control or whether anybody in government was thinking of firing them.

The Pentagon revealed this week that the now deposed Soviet chief of staff suggested before the coup attempt that Moscow and Washington add the safety of nuclear arms to topics that U.S. and Soviet military leaders discuss regularly. In the ensuing chaos, nobody has followed up.

In a Washington Post interview this week, President Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s closest science adviser suggested an international authority to keep an eye on Soviet nuclear weapons until order is restored. Because he was not speaking for Gorbachev and was a little vague on just how the authority might be put together, it may well have been just one more attempt to signal peaceful intentions.

Finally, both the Pentagon and the State Department continue to say they see no sign of a threat either to or from Soviet nuclear missiles.

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PERSISTENT STORIES: Still, scare stories persist. One example was a news report suggesting that the director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London-based defense think tank, was speculating that Soviet gangsters might steal small warheads and sell them to terrorists. It is not likely that Francois Heisbourg meant to give that impression. Central controls over smaller nuclear weapons are not as direct as those on long-range weapons, but they are effective. Analysts generally say nobody could explode a stolen warhead without a code and it is not likely that guards would obligingly tape a copy of the code to each warhead.

Furthermore, stealing even something as small as what the military calls tactical warheads--some of which have ranges of 100 miles or more while others can travel only as far as an artillery shell--would be a formidable assignment, even if any still remain in areas that are considered unstable. The warheads are stored separately from their launching devices and kept under heavy guard by KGB and army troops.

NEXT STEPS: Despite these early reassuring signs, prudence demands every possible effort to make certain that there is hard fact to support the good signs.

There is no history-based textbook on dealing with a disintegrating nuclear power. But high on any list of efforts to get the total guarantees of safeguards Bush mentioned Thursday would be to take the Soviet military up on the proposal to talk regularly about ensuring that nuclear forces can ride out the Soviet political upheaval. A very wise idea.

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