U.S. Under Secretary of State Joseph Nye is flying here to explore a new Indian proposal aimed at heading off a crisis over nuclear safeguards, it was learned yesterday.
Nye, the Carter administration's senior expert on nuclear nonproliferation, is to meet this week with top Indian officials, who have suggested creation of a blueribbon international panel to examine the whole safeguards question.
The subject is particularly urgent since the U.S. Nuclear Nonproliferation Act requires the cutoff of American fuel supplies for two of India's atomic power station unless India agrees to place all its nuclear facilities under international safeguards by March 1980.
While relation between the United States and India have warmed since president Carter and Prime Minister Moraji Desai took office, officials fear an American embargo on fuel - which probably would force at least a temporary shutdown of the two Tarapur power stations - would provoke a new crisis.
U.S. officials also believe a cutoff of supplies would see India reprocess the spent fuel currently being stored at Tarapur under a bilateral agreement with the United States, to recover the plutonium. While the plutonium could then be used to refuel the power stations, it would also be suitable for fabrication of nuclear weapons.
While some Indian nuclear facilities - including the Tarapur power stateions - are safeguarded under bilateral agreements with the United States and the Soviet Union, neither of India's two plutonium reprocessing plants is subject to international inspection.
India refuses to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation treaty until the United States and the Soviet Union begin dismantling their nuclear stock-piles and it similarly has balked at placing all its facilities under safeguards until the major nuclear powers do likewise.
"It is not that we are against the concept of safeguards," Foreign Secretary M. A. Vellodi said in an interview. "Safeguards do apply to some of our facilities.
"What we cannot accept is any sort of discrimination when it comes to safeguards. We have always said, when you are talking in terms of safuards, that they must apply to everbody."
This Indian stand had led some informed observers to conclude that the chances were bleak of a compromise being worked out that would enable the United States to continue supplying fuel for Tarapur.
"It may appear so," conceded Vellodi. "Ours is a principled stand, and on the U.S. side is a law."
The Indian proposal for creation of an international panel of experts that would examine the whole question of safeguarding nuclear installations around the world is viewed as an indication of India's desire to prevent a rupture with the United States over this matter.
In the Indian view a fresh look at the issue might also aid the United States in its negotiations with several other countries such as Spain and South Africa that have had problems of their own in accepting full-scope safeguards.
For the moment, Indian officials are putting the best possible face on their negotiations with the United States, insisting they believe some solution can be found.
President Carter's decision earlier this year to overturn a Nuclear Regulatory Commission decision and authorize the export of 17,000 pounds of uranium to India was viewed as a positive sign. With the appointment of a new commission chairman, U.S. officials expect two more shipments of fuel for Tarapur will be approved routinely in the year ahead.
Indian officials vehemently deny reports here that in anticipation of a cutoff of U.S. fuel in 1980, they have already approached the Soviet Union - which supplies other Indian reactors with heavy water - as a potential source of enriched uranium for Tarapur.
"This is totally untrue. Absolutely not," said Vellodi. "We have an agreement with the United States relative to Tarapur, the United States committed itself to provide fuel and our side committed itself not to get fuel from any other source.
"At the moment, we are still hopeful" Vellodi said. "It certainly is difficult, because the positions are far apart. But these talks will continue and we hope it will be possible to reach some understanding so the agreement is not abrogated.