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Peace from Chernobyl?

FROM the ashes of nuclear disaster at Chernobyl can there emerge a new stimulus for peace? The calamity at the Soviet nuclear power station in the Ukraine ought to give people pause for reflection.

Some Soviet citizens have been killed, and we know by latent Soviet admission that many thousands have been evacuated from the area, cattle have been slaughtered, and agricultural lands now lie fallow.

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Because of Soviet reticence, we still do not have all the facts and therefore cannot assess the implications accurately.

Secretary of State George P. Shultz, who as the former head of the giant Bechtel Corporation knows quite a bit about building nuclear power stations, thinks the Soviets are still underestimating the damage.

But whatever the facts, what happened at Chernobyl is clearly the most serious nuclear accident in history.

That grim knowledge ought to stir policymakers and citizens to greater effort to keep the world safe from a nuclear explosion for military purposes. This campaign must be fought on two levels:

The first level relates to the major powers that now possess nuclear weapons. In fact, their possession has been an awesome deterrent to nuclear war for 40 years.

But nuclear weapons have become more powerful and more accurate. Their number should be better controlled, and the political environment in which the superpowers confront each other should be injected with more trust and mutual confidence than exists at present.

The second is as problematical. This involves preventing the spread of nuclear weapons to smaller nations that do not possess them.

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Though there has been accord among the superpowers on this, countries like Israel, South Africa, Pakistan, and India are nevertheless thought to be within easy reach of developing nuclear weapons.

Much more disturbing is the prospect of countries like Libya or Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon.

Chernobyl is already encouraging nations around the world to reexamine the safety standards of their nuclear power stations. It ought to reinvigorate the campaign for nuclear arms reduction -- not the shrill and one-sided calls for unilateral Western disarmament, and not the impractical demands for instant freezes at levels that favor the Soviet Union -- but for thoughtful mutual reductions with thorough verification.

The Soviet handling of the Chernobyl affair is, of course, a setback. The Soviet Union's credibility has taken a drubbing throughout much of the world. If the Soviets can be so secretive about events such as Chernobyl, how can they be trusted to come clean on the much more sensitive issue of their nuclear military arsenal?

This underscores the importance the United States has placed upon verification of any arms agreements signed with the Soviets. To agree to reductions would be important. To be confident that the Soviets were not cheating would be essential.

If there have been anger and hysteria over tardy and incomplete Soviet reporting of the Chernobyl disaster, is it all the Soviets' fault? Mostly yes. The kind of blackout the Soviet Union imposed encourages speculation and wild deduction.

Nevertheless, while much Western reporting was responsible, some of the screaming early headlines, in New York's tabloid newspapers, for example, did not encourage calm analysis. That, their editors may argue, is the unfortunate consequence when the Soviets cover up, dissemble, and prevent independent investigation by Western reporters.

The new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, presides over an administration in Moscow which is promising more openness. Yet his arms control initiatives in recent months have been orchestrated for maximum public relations impact.

By contrast, at Chernobyl the Soviets lapsed back into the deep, dark depths of their traditional secrecy.

Dare we hope that as the lessons of Chernobyl become clearer, arms control discussions can become more serious, more substantive, more fruitful?

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