SOME PEOPLE profess to see a silver lining in the dark cloud that rose over the crippled Soviet nuclear plant at Chernobyl. They say that the Soviet people are at last conscious of the dangers of nuclear power and will question the cavalier attitude of the authorities towards safety.
And if they do? Richard Pipes, Harvard history professor and former Reagan national security aide, speaking at a birthday party for dissenter Andrei Sakharov, recounted the story of a group of Soviet workers who, prior to the accident, warned of the hazards and abuses at the plant. They were promptly arrested and clapped off to the psychiatric wards for brutal cure of their "un-Soviet" attitudes.
It seems highly unlikely that Soviet citizens might take to the streets in protest as the funeral processions of the radiation sickness victims wind endlessly through their cities in the months and years to come.
The Soviet citizens have no recourse at the ballot box. Dissidents, as we all know, are simply punished, and banished. Public opinion is not a factor in Soviet politics. When Mikhail Gorbachev took to television, finally, to tell what happened at Chernobyl, he was talking more to the world rather than his own people. Had it not been for the way the wind blew that day -- causing the gauges of Russia's neighbors to register high radioactivity -- we might not have known about Chernobyl until months later, or maybe never.
If there is a silver lining to be found, it is that Americans, who can march, shout and vote, may force their government to rethink all things nuclear. The may not choose to do so. They can quite easily contemplate economic ease, an amiable president and the fact that only two major nuclear accidents have occurred in the 40 years since "atoms for peace," with no debate, became a national doctrine.
Will there be a new surge of demands for an end to nuclear testing, for a halt in the arms race? Or will it be just another incident that fades from the public mind as the Soviets entomb their errant plant and the Soviet victims -- who have not been photographed or interviewed -- sicken and die in obscurity?
For hard-liners, Chernobyl has already produced positive fallout. While the radiation readings, all from countries outside the Soviet Union, were still high, administration officials were crowing about the superiority of U.S. plant technology and the importance of never trusting the Russians on a nuclear arms accord. They lied about their accident, and they would lie about their stockpiles of weapons, the line went.
Gorbachev's television address confirmed all they knew about the lamentable system -- its clumsiness, rigidity, incompetence, and the Soviets' inability to deal with disaster, or with truth.
For the liberals, the lesson of Chernobyl is quite different. They are taking instruction from Dr. Robert Gale, the grave, fair-haired young surgeon from Los Angeles who flew to Moscow to do bone-marrow-transplants operations on Soviet victims.
Dr. Gale has been on television, explaining the need for international cooperation in these matters. He refuses to cast any aspersions on the quality of Soviet medical competence or facilities. He says over and over again in effect that we are all in it together, and that no one has the medical capability to deal with affliction of this magnitude. "There's no single country that could handle this kind of disaster." He and his team, which included an Israeli expert, were able to perform only 16 operations of the countless number needed. He estimated there could be l00,000 cases of radiation sickness; he does not need to add that there is no escape, no privilege when power turns lethal.
What he is really telling us is that in a nuclear war there would be no hope of survival. In a nuclear exchange, there would be no planes to fly in foreign doctors, no trains to take victims from explosion site to metropolitan hospitals, no hospitals, no operating rooms, no doctors, no nurses.
How much of this is seeping into people's minds? How they are dealing with it? How they will express their conclusions? This is all to be discovered.
In one corner of the world, the Chernobyl fallout can be tracked with fair exactitude. In New Hampshire, the inhabitants are in a state of near-frenzy over being on a list of nuclear waste dump sites. Gov. John Sununu, a technology buff, is opposed to the dump but at the same time heart-and-soul for the opening of the Seabrook nuclear plant on the coast. Considered unbeatable six months ago, Sununu now faces three Democratic opponents, all of them running on a flat-out anti-nuke platform.
Chernobyl is an issue in the New Hampshire campaign. Maybe the silver lining is that we will at last debate the question of nuclear power -- and look at the arms race while we are about it.