DALLAS, TEXAS — The sinking of the pride of the Russian submarine fleet, the Kursk, is not just another tragic loss of life at sea. It added two more nuclear reactors, and perhaps nuclear warheads, as well, to the more than half-dozen reactors and nearly 50 nuclear warheads already on the bottom of the sea. No one knows just how much ecological damage this nuclear graveyard is generating or when its latent threat to human life will become manifest.
Blaming the deteriorating condition of Russia's military forces for the Kursk tragedy obscures a key point. Similar accidents have happened before, under different conditions. When the U.S. nuclear-powered attack submarine Thresher sank with 129 men and two nuclear-armed SUBROC missiles aboard, it was 1963, and the Cold War was at its height. When a Yankee-class Russian submarine carrying 16 missiles, each armed with two nuclear warheads, sank 600 miles northeast of Bermuda in water three miles deep, it was 1986, in the heady, early days of glasnost and perestroika. Eight years later, Russian scientists told U.S. experts that the sub had broken up. The warheads and missiles, they said, were "badly damaged and scattered on the sea floor" and were surely leaking plutonium and uranium. In 1993, the Russians warned that plutonium from the nuclear submarine Komsomolets, which sank in the Norwegian Sea in 1989 with two nuclear torpedoes on board, was in danger of leaking and poisoning important fishing grounds.
All told, there are two U.S., one French and five Russian submarines in the underwater nuclear graveyard. But that is not the end of the story. The Kola Peninsula, off which the Kursk sank, has become a junkyard for 100 Soviet-era nuclear-powered subs that are rusting away with their nuclear reactors still on board. The 50,000 nuclear-fuel assemblies from the reactors are sitting in storage tanks, some of which are probably leaking, and in open-air bins on military bases and shipyards. At present rates, it will take decades to transport them to permanent storage.
The Kursk tragedy, in which 118 Russian sailors died, is the latest in a long line of nuclear military accidents. During the 45 years before the Kursk was built, there were at least 89 publicly reported military accidents involving nuclear weapons; 59 American, 25 Soviet/Russian, four French and one British. In addition to submarines, the accidents involved fighter planes, bombers, missiles, nuclear-waste storage facilities and surface ships. They occurred despite the best efforts of first-rate designers, careful manufacturers and well-trained crews. What lesson can be drawn from all this?
We live in an age dominated by the advance of technology. We have vastly more power to affect the physical world than we had even 60 years ago. Yet, humans are no less error-prone. The clash between our growing technological power and our enduring fallibility has laid us open to disaster on an unprecedented scale, by accident or design.
Despite the end of the Cold War, there are still tens of thousands of nuclear weapons around the globe. U.S. nuclear forces remain on high alert. Two more nations, India and Pakistan, have joined the nuclear club within the past two years. Yet, nuclear weapons are not the only technology that threatens us.
Chemical and biological weapons, whether in the hands of hostile governments or terrorists, can kill large numbers of people. Then there are technologies designed for benign purposes but capable of doing enormous damage if things go dramatically wrong. Two of the worst accidents in the 20th century involved such technologies: the Chernobyl nuclear-power-plant meltdown on April 26, 1986, and the release of a cloud of toxic chemicals from a pesticide plant in Bhopal, India on Dec. 3, 1984, which killed 2,000 people and injured 200,000 more.
There is no way to eliminate risk from the world, and we would be foolish to try. But there are less-risky technologies, more forgiving of human fallibility, that are either on the shelf or within reach. One of the most heavily subsidized energy technologies, nuclear power can be replaced by a variety of alternative energy sources, from solar and wind power to biomass conversion. If a concentrated and well-funded effort is necessary to lower cost and increase efficiency, it is a social investment worth making. For other dangerous technologies, a mix of technological and non-technological alternatives may be more effective.