A mishap in the Atlantic

THE tragic mishap leading to the sinking of a Soviet nuclear- powered submarine 1,200 miles off New York is a reminder of the continuing risks involved in nuclear power -- as well as the formidable challenges inherent in reliance on high technology in this age of ``star wars.'' To their credit, the Soviets were able to retrieve the crew from the ill-fated vessel before it sank Monday, although, regrettably, at least three seamen were said to have died in the explosion and fire that first ripped through the ship's missile area. Also to their credit, the Soviets promptly reported the incident to Washington. That acknowledgment stands in sharp contrast to the secrecy and lack of candor that marked Soviet handling of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster in April.

This was not the first time that a nuclear submarine has been lost. The United States has lost two, the Thresher in 1963 and the Scorpion in 1968. Nor was this the first time that a nuclear-powered or -equipped weapons system has been involved in a serious mishap.

In this latest incident, the submarine involved is a liquid fuel-powered vessel. These older Soviet subs are being gradually replaced. Newer Soviet subs, as well as US nuclear subs, now use solid fuel components, considered less susceptible to the type of explosion that just occurred in the Atlantic.

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US defense officials insist the sunken Soviet submarine poses no danger. One trusts that is the case. And yet, an incident such as this is a reminder that in the final crunch mankind's safety must be found in more than just a habitual reliance on technologies that sometimes go awry.

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