The sinking of a French cargo ship carrying highly dangerous material off the Belgian coast Saturday has brought to light a curious fact of East-West relations.
There is, of course, the environmental side of the story. If the material - uranium hexafluoride - were to escape from its metal containers during salvage operations, which are expected in September, the consequences for man and the environment could be catastrophic.
But the fact that 375 tons of the product were being shipped from France to the Soviet Union when the vessel was hit by a West German passenger ferry in the foggy English Channel raises interesting political questions as well.
There is no danger, industry officials emphasize, that uranium hexafluoride (or anything extracted from it) could be used to manufacture weapons, nuclear or otherwise. The plutonium used in making atomic weapons is derived from nuclear waste.
What concerns some officials is that the Soviets are involved in handling the West's nuclear materials at all.
The French freighter Mont Louis, which sank in the English Channel last weekend, was en route from Le Havre, France, to the Soviet port of Riga, where the uranium hexafluoride was to have been treated at an old nuclear-weapons factory, well-informed sources say. The treated fuel was then to have been shipped back to France and Belgium, where it was to have been used in both countries's nuclear power plants.
According to French industry officials handling the consignment, there are only two countries in the world capable of enriching uranium. One is the Soviet Union, the other is the United States.
The officials said the Belgians have had a contract with the Soviet Union to enrich the uranium since 1973, and that an average of three shipments of radioactive material make the passage from France to the USSR every year.
(Sources contacted by the Monitor claim they have evidence that the Soviets use the money acquired from enriching the Western uranium to help modernize the nuclear-weapons facility in Riga.)
Experts with the environmentalist group Greenpeace said this week that the ship normally charged with making the passage, the vessel Borodine, is currently laid up in Le Havre for repairs. They also point to health problems among the Borodine's crew.
New questions may surface when the Mont Louis is raised from 45 feet of water and what the ship's owners originally called ''general cargo'' is recovered.