Maintain the Nuclear Alert

THE threat of a world-destroying nuclear war pictured 10 years ago by Jonathan Schell in "The Fate of the Earth" is today unlikely. The cold war is over and the Bush administration adroitly handled negotiations on the dismantling of Soviet missiles.

But the incoming Clinton administration can hardly assume the nuclear problem is solved. The possibility of black-market and backdoor sales of uranium and nuclear technology - mainly from the disintegrating ex-Soviet Army - poses grave dangers. There is no evidence the elite corps of Russian officers overseeing nuclear stockpiles in Kazakhstan, the Ukraine, and Belarus has let down its guard. But the overall pattern of breakdown in Russia is disturbing. Organized crime is on the rise in the former East b loc, and some Russian officers have engaged in black-market sales of weapons and technology to keep their units intact.

Last month a German policeman found uranium first described as weapons grade in the trunk of a car left along the German autobahn. Several arrests have been made in Europe of groups smuggling uranium from the East bloc. No weapons-grade uranium has been found yet. But the increasing number of incidents is worrisome. Also, there are reports that Russian officials recently sold the Chinese centrifugal technology for upgrading uranium - reports Beijing did not deny. The Chinese may sell this technology to t hird-world nations.

The Clinton administration must move to address this lurking post-cold-war danger. It must push in three areas: accelerate dismantling of former Soviet weapons; place fissionable materials under international observation; end production of fissionable materials. As Russia convulses, the West must find out what materials are where.

Tyrants like Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic or Iraq's Saddam Hussein must not acquire nuclear weapons. It is also time to oppose new thinking in many European countries - among them Sweden, Denmark, and Germany - that it is right and natural, a function of self-determination, to develop nuclear weapons, especially if they are already proliferating. A world laden with new national nukes invites thinking the unthinkable.

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