FOR THE PAST three weeks, an international team of 15 safety inspectors has been going carefully through the nuclear reactors at Calvert Cliffs, Md. The audit was organized by the International Atomic Energy Agency, and it's the first time that an American plant has invited this kind of visit. The IAEA has been running safety reviews of reactors for the past four years, but most of them have been in Western Europe. The disaster at Chernobyl last year has suggested to other governments that it might be no more than self-interest to give greater attention to safety standards worldwide and to try to establish the principle that all countries open their plants to these audits. An IAEA team is to go through a Hungarian reactor next year, and the Soviets have been discussing a similar review of one of their plants.

The Calvert Cliffs reactors, operated by Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., are among the best run of the American nuclear plants, and they are apparently coming out of this review well. Most of the IAEA team are Western Europeans, but there are several Eastern Europeans as well as a Canadian and a Korean -- all under the chairmanship of a West German. Most are people who have been running reactors in their own countries.

The inspection team not only carries out its critique of operations and maintenance at Calvert Cliffs but learns something from a close acquaintance with a plant that is in most respects a model. As the IAEA continues these reviews throughout the world, it will ideally produce an international consensus on good practice that all countries accept.

There are two possible futures for nuclear power. One is that public opinion will increasingly resist building reactors as too dangerous. That is the way things seem to be going at present in most of the West -- with some interesting exceptions. But it's conceivable that as anxieties increase in the next decade regarding damage to the atmosphere and change in the climate, people will begin to reflect on the dangers of total reliance on burning coal, gas and oil. At that point they may begin to reconsider the technologies that can generate power without creating carbon dioxide. Only one of them, so far, is capable of operating on an industrial scale. If a smoky and overheating planet begins to turn back to reactors as an environmentally preferable power source, the precedents being set at Calvert Cliffs for raising safety standards and sharing experience may prove to be an important influence for public protection in the next century.