The Senate yesterday passed 88 to 3 a House-enacted bill to place stricter controls on nuclear exports in order to limit the spread of nuclear weapons.

Three days of Senate debate on the controversial anti-proliferation measure came to an end without a serious challenge from the nuclear power industry, which was expected to be led by Sen. James McClure (R-Idaho).

The House passed a similar bill 411 to 0 last September, and the White House is predicting a quick signing by the President.

The Senate and House Legislation would strengthen existing measures to prevent foreign governments or terrorists from diverting peaceful nuclear materials to fabricate weapons. It would use a combination of incentives and sanctions.

President Carter launched a major domestic and international effort last March to limit the proliferation of nuclear weapons, as well as the membership in the world's "nuclear club," and has supported the legislation in the Congress.

Congressional interest in enacting stiffer limits and controls on nuclear exports heightened after India exploded a bomb in 1974 that was made in part with American-supplied materials.

The bill's co-sponsors, Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio) and Sen. Charles H. Percy (R-Ill.), guided the bill through the often-listless floor debate and 11th-hour eforts by McClure and Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) to water it down. McClure and Domenici are strong supporters of the nuclear power industry and have opposed Carter's efforts to end the Clinch River breeder reactor program.

Percy said the bill would at last give priority to nuclear non-proliferation considerations over purely commercial concerns in the nuclear export market which amounts to more than $1 billion in yearly sales.

Minutes after final passage yesterday McClure said that he would still seek to convince Senate and House conference members to adopt a series of changes in the "procedures and time frames" the nuclear industry faces in issuing nuclear export licenses.

McClure also said "My motives have been read as trying to obstruct the passage of the bill -- but the best of motives don't make the bill workable."

McClure had argued last week for an industry-supported proposal to give the dominant voice in export policy to the State Department. At present the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which takes a harder line on proliferation questions, is the principal agency monitoring nuclear exports.

One irony facing the Carter administration is that the NRC has been issuing nuclear export licenses since last September without the approval of its own security and safeguards experts.

The reason is that the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, which oversees safeguards, said in a still-secret report that current safeguards procedures are inadequate.

The three senators voting against the bill were Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), and William Scott (R-Va.). Helms in a final-hour floor speech yesterday said, "We cannot afford to legislate our fantasies."