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A nuclear boost for China?

Fortunately, nuclear weapons are not being used in the Falklands war. But the conflict, besides all the other lessons it holds, should serve as a reminder of the awesome dangers of the spread of nuclear weapons. Argentina does not have an atomic bomb. It does have the wherewithal to develop one, a fact of growing concern in Washington.

And Argentina is not the only potential nuclear power that worries policymakers. Pakistan, India, Brazil, Iraq, Israel, South Africa, Korea - the list grows.

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In light of the trend, it comes as something of a surprise to read that the United States and China now are discussing the possibility of an agreement on peaceful nuclear cooperation that would enable US firms to help develop the Chinese nuclear power industry. Nuclear technology for the People's Republic? A communist nation that already has atomic weapons but is not a signatory of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or a member of the International Atomic Energy Agency?

Washington reportedly has told the Chinese they must provide ''reasonable assurances'' that material from US-supplied reactors would not be used to make weapons or be exported. On the face of it, that sounds like a lukewarm formulation. The US has better assurances even from its close allies, who under the NPT have pledged not to divert civilian nuclear fuel for weapons purposes. Should China be given a special status the allies do not have? The Chinese do not want to allow international inspection, given the nature of their closed society. Yet it seems only prudent that, if the US is to embark on a policy of supplying nuclear equipment to a communist country, the country be required to submit to and abide by IAEA safeguards. Why, also, should Peking not be required to sign the NPT?

Washington should certainly keep its national security requirements paramount. If the Chinese sign the international treaty and some agreement for cooperation stating what they will do with spent fuel from the nuclear reactors, the American people would feel that an orderly process is being observed. If not, they could well question why China - an authoritarian state, a potential superpower, and unpredictable in its policies - should be made a special case.

The issue is even broader, of course. Despite well-meaning and sometimes effective efforts to slow the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the world's suppliers of nuclear fuel and technology are not doing as well as one would hope. West Germany, for instance, is selling a heavy water reactor to Brazil without full-scope safeguards. The problem of how to arrest this trend obviously needs continued study and consideration.

The Reagan administration appears to be sympathetic to liberalizing the export of technology. Even the Carter administration, after an initial tough line on nonproliferation, wound up agreeing with its allies to ease up requirements for safeguards on all but the most sensitive nuclear equipment. President Reagan seems to have gone along with this middle ground, but it is not yet clear what his nuclear export policy or objectives are. These need defining , and no one seems to be giving concerted attention to the matter. Certainly it could be detrimental to US national security if American companies eager to export reactors and other nuclear technology were to wag the tail of US nonproliferation policy.

Business is business, but the stakes in nuclear business are high. China will be the first sign of how seriously the Reagan administration views them.

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