Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) is probably best known now as a sponsor of the recent nuclear weapons freeze initiative in the House. But in 1980 he was involved in an unsuccessful attempt by Congress to prevent the Carter administration from shipping 38 tons of enriched uranium to the Indian reactor at Tarapur. The Tarapur reactor had been secretly used by Indian scientists to create the plutonium for that country's first atomic bomb. The reasons for Markey's past opposition to the export of American nuclear fuel and technology and for his present stand in favor of a nuclear weapons freeze are linked in the theme of "Nuclear Peril": "The global spread of nuclear power guarantees the spread of nuclear bombs."

International safeguards are supposed to prevent the countries that operate reactors from diverting the uranium they use as fuel or reprocessing the plutonium they create as a byproduct into the building of bombs. Alas, as Markey notes, the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Nonproliferation Treaty of 1970 have proven to be "a house of cards." India--a nonsignatory to the NPT--used American uranium in a Canadian-built reactor to produce its first bomb.

It was the case of Tarapur that convinced Markey the real problem with nuclear reactors was not "melt down" but "spread out." The competition among industrialized nations to sell nuclear technology and fuel abroad has made it not only possible for Third World countries to become nuclear powers--but also increasingly easy. Such countries, Markey alleges, "do not necessarily decide to build the bomb; they stumble into it."

Markey finds particularly shortsighted and dangerous the U.S. attitude that it is, in effect, more important to be a reliable nuclear supplier than a responsible one--since a country will always be able to go elsewhere for its nuclear fuel. This was essentially the argument of the Carter administration in justifying its decision to ship more uranium to India, despite legislation signed by President Carter just two years before that halted such exports to countries refusing to abide by international safeguards.

While the uranium deal with India had been opposed even by Carter's Nuclear Regulatory Commission, it was finally rationalized to Congress by the administration in terms of a response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan several months before. That act of aggression, Carter argued, gave a new importance to maintaining friendly relations with other countries in the area, such as India.

Bad as things were under Carter, Markey warns, they are in danger of getting worse under the Reagan administration. Specifically, Markey fears that President Reagan's recent proposal to use reprocessed plutonium from civilian reactors in the manufacture of new nuclear weapons would remove even the symbolic distinction between "atoms-for-peace" and "atoms-for-war," and make a mockery of the Nonproliferation Treaty.

One can marvel with the author that we have gotten as far as we have without an act of nuclear terrorism by some fanatical group or unhinged national leader. The business of building nuclear weapons is becoming relatively inexpensive and almost technologically trivial. Markey writes that the American government has received at least 50 nuclear threats within the past decade, one from a 14-year-old boy whose ransom note was accompanied by a design for a workable atomic bomb.

The government has shown by a series of steps that it is aware of the dangers created by the spread of nuclear weapons. Such measures have included the creation of a Nuclear Emergency Search Team and a congressional study of the effects of a terrorist's atomic bomb upon a large American city. Despite the resurgence of interest in the nuclear threat, however, there may be less public concern with the problem of nuclear proliferation than there was 20 years ago. Markey would like to see a resurgence of that concern lead to a domestic policy of gradually phasing out nuclear reactors in the United States; and to a foreign policy that no longer bestowed or withheld nuclear technology as a way of rewarding or punishing nations, but made stopping the spread of nuclear weapons one of its principal goals.

The alternative, he cautions, will be an eventual "breakout" of nuclear capability worldwide, which the members of the still-exclusive nuclear club may be unable to control. If that happens, then the warning that another opponent of proliferation made at the time of the Tarapur debate will become a prophecy. "It seems to me," Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio) observed, "that future generations will look back at this time period and we may have a lot to answer for."