FRENCH SOURCES profess themselves surprised and acutely embarrassed by the news that Iraq had informed the International Atomic Energy Agency that scheduled inspections of the French-supplied nuclear reactor cannot take place because of the Iran-Iraq war. "We are in a completely new situation that was not foreseen in any international treaties," one knowledgeable source has said. "The problem is raised for international reflection just as sharply as it was in 1974 when India made its explosion." Pardon our French, but this is just baloney.

What, one wonders, did the French government think the United States had in mind when it protested so strongly the shipment of highly enriched, weapons-usable fuel to this part of the Middle East? And does France really believe that the IAEA's safeguards agreements assume that safeguards will be interrupted during wars, at the very moment they are most needed, just because they do not mention special arrangements for wartime?

The facts, insofar as they are known, are that Iraq, because it has signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty, has an agreement with the IAEA, which, among other things, specifies average intervals at which its nuclear facilities will be inspected. Iraq has not "broken" the agreement, or said its facilities cannot again be inspected, just that they cannot be inspected now. No future date for inspection has been set.

The several hundred French technicians who oversaw work at the Iraqi facility were withdrawn after the outbreak of war. Ten to 20 volunteers remain, but, according to press reports, they no longer have free access to the facility or the fuel that was delivered to Iraq last summer, though they were apparently taken to view the fuel some days ago. Much more ominous are recent reports that control of the reactors and fuel has been transferred from Iraqi civilians to the military.

The fuel that causes immediate concern is 26 pounds of highly enriched uranium which, although it was pre-irradiated in France to make it more dangerous to handle, can still be directly used in a nuclear weapon. The amount is sufficient for one approximately Hiroshima-sized bomb.

It is far too early to say that Iraq has already diverted or has any immediate intention of diverting the fuel to weapons use. But the incident nicely illustrates that, despite its diplomatic difficulties, nuclear nonproliferation is not a trivial, troublemaking or theoretical concern. The possibilities for catastrophe are concrete and near at hand. It is also dramatic evidence that although the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the IAEA are the only international system we've got, they are at best an inadequate and fragile protection.