THE NUCLEAR NEWS last week concerned the apparent progress of the United States and the Soviet Union toward a negotiated accord curbing the offensive strategic nuclear weapons of both sides. This week's nuclear news - some good, some bad, some mixed - concerns that good old mouthful nuclear nonproliferation, the effort to prevent nations that don't now have nuclear weapons from acquiring them.
Part of that effort requires the United States to make sure that none of the nuclear fuel and plants we sell abroad strictly for use in the production of energy and for a very few other civilian purposes gets used by the importing countries to make nuclear bombs as well. We've had that experience with India, and you would think that once would be enough. But the bad news this week is that a handful of U.S. senators and a very active nuclear-industry lobby have managed to stymie legislation spelling out the conditions under which nuclear materials should and should not be transferred to countries abroad. This is reasonable legislation. It was fashioned with considerable care and compromise in the House after prolonged study and argument - and it was passed in the House by a vote that could hardly be called partisan or ambiguous: 411 to 0.
Another event in the Senate boded better for the pursuit of wise policy: the rejection by a Senate committee of one of Mr. Carter's nominess, MIT nuclear engineer Kent F. Hansen, to serve as a commissioner on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Mr. Hansen was not well qualified for the post, and the fact is that he had been nominated for what has become the "swing-vote" place on the five-member commission, which is now split 2-2 on many crucial domestic and foregin nuclear matters. Mr. Carter can do better than that, and we use the words "Mr. Carter" advisedly: One of the real oddities of the President's nuclear policy has been his willingness to let Energy Department Secretary James R. Schlesinger himself choose the commissioners meant to monitor the activities of Mr. Schlesinger's own department. How a President sensitive to the proprieties of institutional life could let this come about escapes our understanding.
In other areas, the Carter nuclear policy, especially as it affects the prospective spread of nuclear weapons, has been promising. The proposal the Department of Energy outlined on Tuesday for the storage of nuclear waste has real promise in this connection. Some countries have insisted that they need to go to the reprocessing of nuclear fuel - the step that can equally create new fuel or weapons-grade nuclear explosives - because reprocessing is the only alternative to a dread, unmanageable nuclear-waste storage problem. Now that pressure (which some think was real, and others contrived) can be removed: There will be a number of political and economic and technical difficulties to overcome, but the United States has in fact made a sensible offer to take on the problem of storage for some foreign countries and for our own domestic utilities.
The President clearly wished to unveil this proposal for the meeting here this week of nearly 40 countries that, at U.S. initiative, were trying to agree on a set of common perceptions of the facts and dangers of various nuclear-energy technologies. In his remaks to them on Tuesday, the President stressed both our good faith in hoping to resolve the storage question and our intention of taking steps to create for them an ensured supply of nuclear fuel. Although there was little evidence when the meeting ended yesterday that his reassurances had changed the minds of any of the participants or softened their resistance to his policy, these offers will be important elements in any future efforts he makes in persuading them not to rush permaturely into technologies we may all come to regret - for economic and technological reasons, not just reasons of nuclear-weapons spread. Mr. Carter reportedly has made plain to the Senate Democratic leadership how important the staled export legislation is to him. He could also improve his prospects on the nonproliferation front by nominating someone to the open commissioner's spot who has a grasp of the problems attending nuclear development commensurate with the President's own.