AS we celebrate the centenary of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, we should give his ``Atoms for Peace'' proposal a second look. Institutions that grew out of this initiative have become important in curbing the spread of nuclear arms to new countries - a threat that is growing rapidly, even as the danger of nuclear war with the Soviet Union recedes. As the START Treaty is about to be concluded, it may be time to implement the rest of Mr. Eisenhower's plan. In his December 1953 speech at the United Nations, Eisenhower proposed that Washington and Moscow begin a long-term commitment to nuclear arms control with an easily implemented first step. Both countries would take a small portion of the nuclear weapons material in their stockpiles and contribute it to a new international organization, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The IAEA would develop means for denaturing the material to make it unsuitable for military use and then distribute it to other nations, under strict controls, where it would be used for peaceful ends for the benefit of mankind.
Moscow rejected the idea of joint contributions of weapons material, but supported the establishment of the IAEA in 1957. In the years that followed, as the US and the Soviet Union transferred nuclear materials and equipment to their friends and allies, they called on the IAEA to apply safeguards that would detect and deter any diversions for military purposes.
In 1970, when the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty went into force, the IAEA's role grew. To verify their pledges under the treaty that they would not manufacture nuclear arms, the non-nuclear parties to the pact agreed to place all of their nuclear facilities - indigenous and imported - under the agency's inspections. Today some 140 non-weapon states have joined the treaty. As a result, the IAEA inspects 98 percent of the world's nuclear installations outside the five declared weapon states - the US, USSR, Britain, France, and China.
In Iraq, IAEA inspections have verified for 10 years that Saddam Hussein has not tampered with the bomb's worth of weapons-grade nuclear fuel it obtained from France in 1980. In reunified Germany, comprehensive inspections under IAEA supervision are providing reassurance to the country's neighbors of its continued nuclear abstinence. In the case of North Korea, which signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1985 but has not yet allowed full IAEA inspections, the multilateral IAEA is the key forum through which the US and others are pressuring Pyongyang to respect its treaty obligations. And, if South Africa soon joins the treaty, as is widely expected, IAEA safeguards will provide the means for verifying that it has dismantled its de facto nuclear arsenal.
While America may have touted too zealously the benefits of nuclear power under the aegis of Atoms for Peace and while too many states pursue nuclear programs, the gains for nuclear non-proliferation from this part of Eisenhower's initiative have been impressive. Implementing his plan for reducing US and Soviet nuclear-weapons material could also yield dividends and has become a timely option in light of improved US-Soviet relations.
The superpowers like to boast that they recently ``eliminated an entire class of nuclear weapons'' under the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. This does not tell the full story, however. The missiles covered by the treaty were indeed destroyed, but the warheads, with their costly nuclear material, were put back into US and Soviet stockpiles to be recycled into new weapons.
Will the same thing happen under the soon-to-be-concluded START treaty, under which the superpowers are to ``eliminate'' some 30 percent of their strategic nuclear systems? Negotiations have apparently stalled over this issue, among others.
More appropriate to the post-Cold War era would be to place the nuclear material from these weapons under IAEA oversight. The material need not be shipped to the agency's headquarters in Vienna. The superpowers could keep custody of it but place it under the IAEA safeguards system at home, shifting it from their respective military programs to the ``peaceful'' sector.
The IAEA already inspects some civilian nuclear facilities in both countries. It would simply be adding a new storage installation in each to its list. To avoid giving away weapons-design information, Washington and Moscow could agree to formalized ``counting rules,'' of the type they have used in other arms control agreements, to establish the types and amounts of material to be sequestered.
Using this approach, the superpowers would be demonstrating unambiguously their commitment to reducing the threat of a global nuclear holocaust. They would also greatly enhance the status of the IAEA - so important today in containing emerging nuclear threats around the globe.
And what a fitting tribute it would be for Ike's 100th year!