THE central stake for the United States in the power struggle between Boris Yeltsin and opponents of reform in Russia is most often presented in nuclear terms: A revived arms race spurred on by an anti-democratic regime in Moscow could once again cast the shadow of nuclear annihilation over the post-cold-war world, costing America billions in defense savings in the process.
There is, however, another nuclear issue at stake in reforming the former Soviet Union. For decades, the Soviet military used Russia and its bordering oceans as dumping grounds for nuclear waste. Under Mr. Yeltsin, these destructive practices have been exposed. If reform fails in Russia, they could be revived.
Perhaps more than any other institution of the former Soviet Union, the military stands to gain in power and prestige should Yeltsin's reform efforts fail. The US has a vital national-security interest in seeing that this does not happen. What is less recognized is that we have a vital environmental interest at stake in the struggle for democratic reform in Russia as well.
In the nightmare of environmental degradation that is the legacy of communism across the former Soviet Union, that country's vast military and weapons production complex was the No. 1 contributor. Recently, Greenpeace released the results of a top-level Russian commission confirming what Western scientists and environmental groups have long believed: For decades, the Soviet Navy dumped nuclear reactors from its submarines and icebreakers into Arctic oceans and the Sea of Japan. Between 1965 and 1988 the Soviets secretly dumped 18 nuclear reactors, six of which still contained highly radioactive fuel, into shallow waters.
The Soviet military's nuclear activity was not confined to ocean dumping. What can only be described as nuclear atrocities were routinely committed in the many secret, numbered cities that dot the former Soviet Union and comprised its vast nuclear weapons complex. At one such secret city, known as Chelyabinsk-65, from 1948 to 1952 weapons producers dumped radioactive waste directly into a river that served as the source of drinking water for 28,000 downstream residents. It is estimated that between 10,00 0 and 17,000 drums of radioactive wastes have been left to decay in the Russian Arctic.
Like so much of what occurs in Russia, the effects of the reckless nuclear activity of the former Soviet military are not likely to be contained within the borders of the disintegrating empire. No one knows for certain, but estimates are that enough wastes have been dumped to allow more than 2 billion curies of radiation to escape into the environment. The danger is that these radionuclides could enter the food chain and eventually affect humans.
The lack of accountability and the tight control of information that allowed the military for decades to poison the environment of the former Soviet Union could not have existed in an open, democratic society. The protection of the global environment from the effects of radiation pollution in Russia is an important part of US efforts to help democracy survive in that country. In fact, the interests of democracy and environmental protection can be served simultaneously in Russia, and with a modest commitm ent of US resources. One way is to bring Russian scientists into environmental assessment and clean-up in the Russian Arctic. The need is currently great for long-term environmental monitoring in the Arctic to assess the damage already done by radiation pollution there.
The survival of democracy in Russia depends on fostering a spirit of open, critical inquiry that is central to a healthy scientific establishment. The Russian scientific community is struggling today as talented researchers and scientists abandon their institutes for better facilities and prospects abroad. The US could serve both its own interests and those of Russian democracy by involving these scientists in environmental monitoring and keeping them out of the weapons labs of third-world dictators.
An additional means of preventing further radiation problems is to take some of the money Congress has earmarked to help Russia destroy its nuclear weapons and use it to safely dispose of nuclear reactors from decommissioned submarines. The Russian Navy currently has 80 to 90 submarines ready for decommissioning, with many more to follow in the years ahead. It is imperative that safe alternatives to simple dumping of these reactors into the ocean be provided.
Combatting this menace need not deter us from seeing reform triumph in Russia.