The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, concerned over whose finger stays on the button of the Soviet Union's 30,000 nuclear weapons in a time of internal tumult, is proposing that the Kremlin mount a "fail-safe" review of controls on its nuclear arsenals. Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., also wants the United States to conduct such an independent review of its own safeguards against the unauthorized or accidental launch of nuclear weapons and says his committee will do the job if the Pentagon fails to act.
With ethnic and political tensions straining Soviet unity, many American military experts and key congressional figures are fretting about the possibility that a nuclear missile could be unleashed on the world without the knowledge or approval of the Kremlin.
"My worst-case fear for the last several months is that we would wake up one morning and discover that an ethnic liberation front had obtained control of 100 nuclear weapons," said a military expert on the staff of the House Armed Services Committee.
"Nuclear weapons are in every Soviet republic that is potentially rebellious," said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"It's a legitimate problem to worry about," he said. "I'm not having nightmares about it. Stealing a nuclear weapon is not a simple thing to do. We know you can't just walk into a Soviet missile silo and fire them."
But he added the equation might change if an ethnic faction seized control of an entire province.
Bruce G. Blair of the Brookings Institution notes that the Soviets may have 100 or so nuclear weapons stored near Baku, in Soviet Azerbaijan, site of recent violent clashes between Moslem Azerbaijanis and Christian Armenians.
Until Soviet troops entered Baku to restore order, widespread reports had gunmen seizing conventional arms and ammunition from Soviet depots.
"It's a concern people are paying attention to, trying to monitor," Blair said. "I think the Soviets themselves are so concerned about this problem that they're handling it just fine."
The issue of control over nuclear weapons may soon be explored in extraordinary public fashion, at a time the superpowers apparently are nearing agreement on several arms control accords.
Yevgeni Velikhov, chairman of the Supreme Soviet's defense subcommittee, proposes an unprecedented joint hearing with the House Armed Services Committee to explore ways of reducing the danger of unauthorized or accidental launches of nuclear weapons.
Rep. Les Aspin, D-Wis., chairman of the House panel, says he is open to the idea of a joint meeting, leaving the topic of such a session to be settled later.
Nunn said in an interview: "I think you have to worry about thousands of nuclear weapons in a nation that has a lot of turmoil."
Nunn wants the Kremlin to review the effectiveness of "fail-safe" procedures to insulate their nuclear weapons from the country's political troubles. "I hope we can persuade them to do it," he said.
The two superpowers should cooperate more closely on the issue because "this is one area of technology that it would pay both sides to share," he said.