WHATEVER the final outcome of the Chernobyl reactor disaster, one certain casualty is the strategy of political and economic development which made the Soviet Ukraine dependent on nuclear power for 60 percent of its electricity. The Soviet Union as a whole derives between 9 and 15 percent of its energy from nuclear sources. The Ukrainian party boss who presided over the nuclearization of his republic, V. V. Shcherbitsky, most likely will also suffer as a result of the catastrophe. The Ukraine is not only the traditional breadbasket of the Russian Empire, it is also where much of the country's early industrialization took place.
Industrial development was powered by coal from the Donbass region of the Ukraine, where such mythic figures of Stalinist industrialization in the 1930s as Alexei Stakhanov performed their labor heroics. In recent years, however, the coal mines have been playing out.
Leonid Brezhnev's solution to energy depletion in the USSR's older industrial regions was the opening of major new oil and gas fields in Soviet Siberia.
But doing so required, and requires, enormous investments, both to obtain the energy and then to transfer it to where it's needed. Moreover, the Soviets have lacked particular, critical technologies for oil exploration and pipeline operation. As a result, Brezhnev proposed making the investments international.
He persuaded his East European satellites to participate and also sought to make deals with Western companies for equipment and technical aid.
Brezhnev's one-time heir apparent, Andrei Kirilenko, came to be closely indentified with the Soviet nuclear program, as did Shcherbitsky.
By 1979, both men were lukewarm about the possibilities of d'etente, and each was enthusiastic about nuclear power.
Not only did it make d'etente less necessary, but it also provided a cheaper way to continue investment in the already developed Ukraine, something Kirilenko, the Communist Party secretary responsible for industry, would have approved, because it would have stretched investments through using an already developed transportation network and a settled, abundant work force.
Meanwhile, the Ukrainians embarked on a crash program of nuclear development. The USSR and Ukrainian ministers of power engineering agreed that the plants posed no danger to anyone, since they were conservatively engineered and carefully monitored.
Because Soviet cities use neighborhood power plants to provide hot water and heat for apartments, plans to install nuclear heat stations in major cities' suburbs proceeded apace.
At the end of 1984, the Soviet minister of power and electrification asserted that ``such stations are very economical and can be built in the immediate vicinity of a city because they do not emit smoke and are totally safe.'' The Ukrainian minister echoed him in the now-infamous comment that the odds of a meltdown ``are one in 10,000 years,'' this in a February 1986 article in Soviet Life, a Soviet monthly published in the United States, which asserted the complete safety of Soviet nuclear power by the example of the Chernobyl plant. Whatever the immediate costs of the disaster turn out to be, it seems certain that such claims will no longer be accepted so easily by Soviet decisionmakers.
All bets about sources of Soviet energy will be off until everyone can be convinced that the Chernobyl accident was a freak that will not be repeated, something that will at the least require costly retrofitting of containment structures for many Soviet reactors.
Shcherbitsky, one of two republican leaders remaining in General Secretary Gorbachev's Politburo who attained the pinnacle of power with Brezhnev's aid before Gorbachev himself reached the top leadership, will probably be made to bear the blame for the catastrophe. Gorbachev himself had no role in Soviet industrial policymaking when the Ukrainians decided to go nuclear. He will probably come out of the disaster with a strengthened position at home. But his carefully crafted campaign to convince Europeans that Moscow speaks with the voice of reason and openness while Washington is nastily belligerent has come crashing down about his head.
The leadership may very well want to turn more urgently to the West for help in making up the atomic energy sources lost or likely to be out of service for extended times after the disaster. That is a cost the Soviet economy will be paying for a long time.
Donald A. Van Atta is assistant professor of government at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y.