Just as world attention focuses intently and inconclusively on how best to deal with terrorism, along comes a frightening reminder of the ultimate terror of the age -- a nuclear cloud encircling the globe and depositing radioactive material wherever the winds carry it.
The two forms of terror are not as isolated as they would appear to be. The Soviet nuclear accident, apparently the worst ever, raises anew serious questions about the safety of nuclear power and heightens concern about the inherent dangers of life in the nuclear age. The continuing proliferation of nuclear weapons raises a different kind of specter: the ultimate terrorist act in which a Muammar Qaddafi succeeds in obtaining nuclear arms and threatens to use them.
Together, these threats ought to force reexamination of the state of nuclear power and the growing numbers of nuclear weapons and raise questions about their possible relationship to the new wave of international terrorism.
First, on nuclear power:
As the episode in the Soviet Union makes clear, no ironclad fail-safe procedures exist in production of nuclear energy. Accidents occur. Safety standards, as we now learn from the Soviet example, vary greatly.
What caused the disaster at the nuclear power plant near Chernobyl in the Ukraine is unclear at this writing. Whether it stemmed from faulty design, human or mechanical error, incompetence or a combination of these, matters not. The accident did happen. The apparent meltdown and ensuing fire are real. They carry serious consequences.
None of this means that nuclear power will have no role in supplying energy needs. It does, however, renew uncertainty over the untamed dangers of that power.
With this comes another problem. Forty-one years after the first explosion of atomic devices, the United States has not begun to resolve one of the most serious long-term questions of the nuclear era. What should be done about the high-level toxic nuclear waste that accumulates year after year and will continue to be radioactive, and thus a potential menace, for tens of thousands of years?
The United States remains a decade away from finding storage sites for this nuclear waste. The longer a decision on where to dump the material is postponed, the more difficult it becomes.
Just how impassioned that issue is was underscored at a recent congressional hearing. The governors of Virginia, Maine, North Carolina, Wisconsin and Minnesota emotionally told a House subcommittee on energy conservation and power that they don't want their states considered as places to store nuclear wastes, as has been suggested in Energy Department plans.
Wisconsin Gov. Anthony S. Earl told the panel that his state "feels threatened by this as nothing else that has appeared on the scene in years." Maine's Joseph E. Brennan, referring to intensely negative reactions from citizens of his state opposed to storing such wastes there, echoed those sentiments. He had "not seen an outpouring like this since the Vietnam war." None of them wants nuclear waste dumped, figuratively, in his back yard.
The Soviet accident, like the U.S. one at Three Mile Island seven years ago, is certain to intensify such emotions. It is bound to make reaching a decision on where to store nuclear debris even more difficult.
These are troubling enough problems, but the stakes and dangers multiply when the other side of the nuclear equation, terrorism, is considered.
Unfortunately, in this area, it's impossible to overstate the potential dangers, and thinking the unthinkable becomes necessary.
It is, of course, insane to think that any human being could consider using nuclear weapons on innocent people. Yet, by its very nature, terrorism is the antithesis of rationality, and terrorists may seek to employ nuclear weapons. The prospect of their attacking a nuclear power plant cannot be ignored, either. Nor can one dismiss the idea of their launching a nuclear attack if they obtain such weapons.
The lesson of Libya and terrorism, and now of the Soviet Union and nuclear power, is that these problems require the greatest degree of international cooperation and immediate action to safeguard against dangers they pose. The same is needed to curb proliferation of nuclear weapons. Like nuclear wastes, nuclear arms increase daily -- and daily make the world less secure.