Ever since the plant at Chernobyl blew up and melted down, the most peculiar glow has appeared on the cheeks of the American arms-uncontrol establishment. Get out the Geiger counters. There are people in the administration who are radiating good cheer. They are convinced that the megadose of RADS, Russian Attempts at Deception, was enough to turn the American people into hawks.
The only bone-marrow transplant that Kenneth Adelman, Cap Weinberger, et al., are interested in is one to stiffen our spines against any arms agreement with the Soviets. It might even harden our resolve to fork up $1 trillion for Star Wars.
The radiation from Chernobyl is polluting the atmosphere, but it is not clear yet whether the "lesson" we will eventually learn from this disaster is 1) that we cannot trust the Soviets or 2) that we cannot trust technology. Our answer is likely to affect the future of SDI, the defense marketed to us as the shield against bombs: protection without negotiation.
On this multiple-choice question on the subject of trust, allow me to share the right answer. It's 3) neither of the above.
The recent experience of the Chernobyl plant, like that of the Challenger explosion and the Titan and Delta failures, is a gruesome moment in the process called trial and error. A British astronomer has said, "Like the human back, the nuclear power plant was deployed before it was fully developed." These events carry the bleak warning label: Accidents will happen.
We presume, some glibly and some skeptically, that scientists can learn from errors. They promise to do better next time, even if next time begins back at the drawing board or in the congressional hearing room.
But Star Wars? The president calls this program his "dream." He has the dream, says Kurt Gottfried, Cornell University physicist and a director of the Union for Concerned Scientists, "that there is a device yet to be invented that will solve the whole problem of defense. In his mind, it's like somebody inventing the zipper."
But there isn't a zipper or a magic shield in the offing. The SDI people are now looking at a seven-layer defense system with hundreds or thousands of satellites in each layer, all of which have to be put up and maintained in a steady state of alert. "Roughly speaking," says Prof. Gottfried, "it's not so different from having a whole lot of nuclear power plants up in space. Now imagine trying to turn them on under nuclear attack, all in synchronization and all for the first time."
SDI is, according to Prof. Gottfried, "intrinsically untrustworthy because it's a technology that is being developed against an adversary, not against nature . . . and because it can never be tested until it is too late." There won't be -- can't be -- any trial; there is sure to be error.
What about trusting the Soviets, then? The process of arms control has never been built on trust. Negotiators don't trade friendship rings. They prefer verification to promises. This message also has emanated out of the stacks at Chernobyl.
The Soviets didn't give us photo opportunities of the plant burning; our satellites did. It was Western knowledge-gathering -- the high technology of communications -- that forced the Soviets to be more open with their own people. It is much easier to verify arms-control agreements, including nuclear testing, than it used to be.
We do have to trust one thing, however: Soviet self-interest and rationality. We assume that it is not in their best interest to blow up the world. We assume that it is not in their interest to drop a big one on Washington and have us drop one on Moscow. We go to bed assuming that every night.
But when the president goes to bed, he has a "dream" about a world where we don't have to worry about the Russians, we just have to worry about the O-rings. In the best, rosiest scenario, we could never actually test SDI. If we couldn't test it, we couldn't rely on it.
A trillion dollars later, we would be forced to hold on to the same old policy of deterrence, MAD deterrence. We might as well send the money directly into space. That way, if the rocket fails to get into orbit, it will at least make one dream come true: There'll be pennies from heaven.