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Countering the A-bomb threat; Author argues world safety must begin with public awareness of choices ahead

By Bruce ManuelBook editor of The Christian Science Monitor / April 9, 1982

''The Fate of the Earth'' is a book I'm urging everyone I know to read - not maybe, not sometime, but without fail, now.

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Already the subject of intense interest and debate even before it's on bookstore shelves, this earnest, compassionate study of nuclear weapons transcends the ordinary measures of literary merit to become an event of global significance.

Former Vice-President Walter F. Mondale is one of several public figures who have praised the book. On the ''CBS Evening News'' Bill Moyers said it could play a pivotal role, like that of ''Silent Spring,'' in focusing public attention on a matter of the utmost importance. Sen. Alan Cranston (D) of California asked Schell to summarize his ideas for circulation among members of Congress.

The case Schell lays before us suggests that this subject deserves our prayers and our most persistent and conscientious efforts at solution. For a solution, he predicts, will demand a revolutionary new recognition of the oneness and interdependency of life on earth, the unworkability of war as an adjunct to diplomacy, and the need of a new political structure to replace our system of sovereign states - immense challenges, but ones Schell feels can be met.

The common sense of his appeal, first published two months ago as a New Yorker magazine series, cuts through our distraction and apathy. It could kindle the public sentiment needed to slow or halt the steady buildup of doomsday devices.

Schell's 244-page volume, to be published April 26 by Alfred A. Knopf at $11. 95, is the newest in a vast proliferation of books about nuclear questions. Publishers Weekly recently counted 130 such books, more than 100 of which have appeared since 1980.

Yet no other nuclear book speaks as clearly or as sensitively to the layman, or encompasses the cultural, moral, and spiritual as well as the technological and political considerations that Schell's does.

Of course, we don't need any book to tell us that the possibility of nuclear war - intentional or accidental - confronts us daily. We have only to keep up with the news. Although we don't like to think about it, we also realize there would be no ''winner'' in a large-scale nuclear exchange; both sides would experience devastation unparalleled in history.

But can we really appreciate what that means? How many people, for instance, would survive? Would shelters or evacuation help?What would we find when - and if - we climbed out of our bunkers after an attack? And how much time would our society need to recover?

These questions have been debated ever since the impact of the A-bomb was perceived, but too much of the discussion suffers from the hermetic quality Schell finds in military and ''think tank'' studies. ''Once the 'strategic necessity' of planning the deaths of hundreds of millions of people is accepted, '' he writes, ''we begin to live in a world in which morality and action inhabit two separate, closed realms. All strategic sense becomes moral nonsense, and vice versa. . . .'

In the first of the book's three sections, Schell explores the basic questions from the standpoint of an intelligent, inquisitive, and sensitive journalist. Drawn on five years of research and interviews with prominent scientists, his conclusions are far from reassuring.

Mankind's peril, he explains, results from knowledge of how to free the tremendous energy that binds atomic particles. Humanity can't escape that knowledge. Einstein's E EQUALS mc2 tells us what we get. The energy available in , say, a fleck of uranium dust is equal to its mass multiplied by the speed of light (186,000 miles per second) squared - power monstrously larger than anything humanity has known in the past. Einstein's was a discovery that ''altered the relationship between man and the source of his of life, the earth, '' Schell reminds us. The fruits of that discovery have been turned into weapons that might be resorted to in a moment of anger, confusion, or frustration of national aims.

The world's current nuclear stockpile, estimated at 17,000 to 20,000 megatons of explosive power, would produce a cumulative blast a million times as powerful as the one that destroyed Hiroshima, a city of 340,000, in a few seconds on an August morning 37 years ago.

The energy released in a nuclear blast, Schell explains, comes in four forms: (1) a thermal pulse that, among other things, melts glass and metal and exhausts the air's supply of oxygen; (2) an electromagnetic pulse that disrupts electric power and communications well beyond the blast area; (3) a blast wave that razes buildings and trees; (4) radiation that contaminates the environment, the food chain, and potentially the whole ecosphere.