Gerard C. Smith entirely misses the point of congressional objections to the unprecedented nuclear cooperation agreement with Japan {op-ed, Feb. 19}. Most members of Congress agree that a new nuclear agreement with Japan with improved nonproliferation controls is a very desirable goal. There is little argument that preventing the spread of nuclear weapons to new nations or to terrorists must be one of our highest national priorities in this vastly dangerous nuclear age. However, we in Congress are unwilling to see the very foundation for our current nonproliferation policy gutted in the process of approving this agreement. We are also deeply concerned about the prospect of tons of deadly plutonium being air-shipped through the United States every year for the next 30 years.

It is important to emphasize that concern about the serious flaws in this agreement did not originate in Congress, but rather within the administration itself. Both former defense secretary Caspar Weinberger and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission strongly opposed it. Unfortunately, the State Department overrode their objections and is now attempting to do the same with Congress.

The fundamental flaw in this agreement is its failure to live up to the requirements of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Act of 1978. The act requires prior U.S. consent before U.S.-origin nuclear material may be retransferred, reprocessed or otherwise substantially transformed by another country. Case-by-case review and approval by the United States of such activities are clearly envisioned by the act and have in fact been standard practice since its enactment. This process is vital for U.S. efforts to prevent the diversion of U.S.-origin nuclear materials by terrorists or nonnuclear weapons states seeking a nuclear capability.

However, this agreement, in a radical revision of current nonproliferation policy, effectively abolished the case-by-case review standard. In its place the agreement grants blanket approval for retransfers and reprocessing for 30 years. Over the life of the agreement, more weapons-usable plutonium could be acquired by Japan than exists in the entire U.S. nuclear arsenal today. In jettisoning the case-by-case review standard that has been central to U.S. nonproliferation policy for years, the agreement would effectively abdicate U.S. control over sufficient U.S.-origin nuclear material to manufacture literally thousands of nuclear weapons. This should make it apparent why the Defense Department objected so strenuously.

Congress is also deeply concerned about the agreement's provisions permitting the air shipment of tons of plutonium over the United States. Casks under development for these shipments have repeatedly failed simulated crash tests, raising the possibility of catastrophic environmental damage if anything should go wrong on these flights.

Concern about these serious deficiencies led bipartisan majorities of both the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee to object to the agreement in its current form and to request its renegotiation.

Congress' skepticism regarding this agreement should not call into question congressional support for nuclear commerce with Japan. Indeed, we support U.S. nuclear cooperation with Japan as authorized in the existing nuclear cooperation agreement, which runs through the year 2003, and we welcome such continued nuclear trade.

But we oppose this proposal to abandon longstanding U.S. policy maintaining the tightest possible safeguards over plutonium use. Japan's determination to pursue a plutonium economy neither permits nor justifies this attack on the core of U.S. nonproliferation policy. Since the State Department has left it to Congress to protect U.S. rights on this vital national security question, we intend to do our utmost to uphold U.S. interests.

-- Mel Levine and Howard Wolpe The writers are Democratic representatives from California and Michigan, respectively. They are members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.