IT SEEMS about a million years ago that candidate Jimmy Carter was taking a forthright, "way-out" stand on nuclear-nonproliferation issues. And it seems almost as long since his early days in office, when Mr. Carter's representatives appeared determined to fulfill his commitment - by any means short of nuclear war. His appointees settled down - and got wise. So wise, in fact, that it began to look as if there were nothing the Carter administration could not be induced to tolerate where the proliferation-connected "needs" of other nations were concerned.

It now seems as if some balance is being restored. Carter administration prodding has resulted in progress toward an agreement among nuclear supplier nations to tighten up the controls on their exports. And, perhaps more important as a sign of its renewed concern, the administration has come off a very short-sighted position it was taking on legislation establishing standards for our own nuclear exports that is now before the House.

Until very recently the spokesmen for the administration were trying to keep this legislation tied up in the House Rules Committee. One of the provisions of the bill they had decided to oppose was that which made the likelihood of "timely warning" of any diversion of nuclear materials to bomb-making purposes a standard against which nuclear exports would have to be judged. In other words, the bill's principal author, Rep. Jonathan Bingham (D-N.Y.), and its co-sponsors had built into the legislation the thoroughly sensible position that the much-talked-about "safeguarding" of nuclear materials from misuse must rest on the ability of the international community to discover - in time to do something about it - that, let us say, fuel was being diverted for use in explosives. Administration representatives who were disposed to regard this as a terrible burden on those friends and allies who intend to go down the plutonium-reprocessing road (a procedure that in its preferredforms does not permit very "timely warning") [WORD ILLEGIBLE] to get the provision removed. Finally and fortuarlly the White House intervened and approved the [WORD ILLEGIBLE] of lauguage that effectively restores the [WORD ILLEGIBLE] of language that effectively restores the "timely warning" provision.

This episode offers a good illustration of why the Bingham legislation itself and its counterpart now being worked out in the Senate deserve to be passed. The proposed statute will provide a much-needed set of congressionally approved standards and sanctions and goals concerning our exports of nuclear technology sense of any nuclear-export program we follow much less dependent on and vulnerable to the whims and fashions of the moment, or the ability of our diplomats to keep their perspective and resist fierce pressure from allies and client states, or the fact that one agency bureaucrat may have outwitted another in a policy war.

All these things, by the way, in addition to intense heat from the nuclear industry, were in fact what did combine to weaken the administration's antiproliferation position in recent months. And bureaucratic and industry pressures also played a role in the dramatic rejection in the House on Tuesday of Mr. Carter's plea to defer work on the Clinch River breeder reactor. Within his administration, especially among many people from the old AEC and ERDA, there has long been something less than 100 per cent support - to put it mildly - for Mr. Carter's own desire to put the brakes on the drive toward a plutonium economy.

Mr. Carter wants to explore alternatives to going in that direction at all and, if these do not materialize, at the very least to relate the development of plutonium-based energy production to some kind of international discipline to control this dangerous bombrelated subatance.

The White House intervention that helped restore some good provisions to the export-control bill in the House may be a sign that Mr. Carter is now alert to the rapidity with which a position can be disfigured when a President fails to insist that he means what he says. We hope this is the case. Never mind that the initial Carter moves on nuclear nonproliferation were pretty rough and tumble or that there was merit to some aspects of the more restrained and reasonable approach that was subsequently taken toward certain of our allies. The point is that on the big, broad, central questions of nuclear nonproliferation, the President was right the first time.