Western governments see special urgency in blocking Libyan Col. Muammar Qaddafi's military moves to carve out a mineral-rich Saharan empire in Chad: qQaddafi is determined to beg, borrow or buy a nuclear-weapons capability at any cost.

French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, probably after consultations with the United States (which has been anxiously following the Libyan moves), has alerted French aircraft and paratroops stationed elsewhere in Africa for possible intervention in Chad.

Neighboring Niger is one of the African states France most wants to defend. Niger happens to be the major source of uranium for Qaddafi's still-stalled nuclear program. COGEMA, the Franco-African mining and marketing firm that supplies the uranium, is headed by a relative of Giscard.

Alarmed by Qaddafi's Chad adventure, Senegal, Gambia and Ghana recently broke diplomatic relations with Libya. But no one is more worried than Niger President Seyni Kountche. He recently charged Qaddafi with fomenting instability and spreading violence in Niger, but has not, at last report, halted the flow of uranium "yellow cake" to Libya.

In past years, Qaddafi shipped much of the yellow cake on to Pakistan. But by 1979, Qaddafi found he could no longer work with Pakistan in joint efforts to develop an "Islamic Bomb." Since then, his efforts have been directed to finding other foreign help. India, which tested its own bomb in 1974, is one possibility.

The groundwork for Qaddafi's extremely discrete contacts with India -- neither Indira Gandhi nor any other Indian prime minister would want any public association with helping Qaddafi get the bomb, though the Indians were relieved by the end of the "Islamic bomb" project with their adversary, Pakistan -- was laid in 1974. India's National Development Corporation, as a consultant for the Libyan government, wrote Libya's industrial development plans. These plans note the desirability of nuclear or other forms of power to desalinate sea water for Libya's thirsty deserts and for industry.

1974 was also the year when Arab education and science ministers met in Rabat. They decided to accept Qaddafi's offer of a site and ample funds in Libya for a big new Arab "think tank" -- the Arab Development Institute (ADI).

In a pleasant garden environment near Tripoli, over 70 Arab scientists, unable to refuse monthly tax-free pay of $2,000 or so to do their own research, have found that money is no object. "If one of our projects is approved," said Dr. Kameleddine Hussein, an Egyptian who has worked in solar research there, "then the scientist simply go ahead and spend what they have to spend. Research is what counts, and budget limitations don't apply."

Qaddafi has often made his nuclear intentions clear. When Chinese Premier Chou En-lai politely turned down a Libyan offer to buy a bomb from China, Qaddafi turned to Pakistan's late president, Ali Bhutto. Talks were held between men such as Qaddafi's two senior Libyan nuclear scientists, Dr. Fathi Nooh (trained at Berkeley, Calif.) and Dr. Fathi Shingi (trained in England and India) and Pakistani nuclear experts.

In 1977 and 1978, Qaddafi paid considerable sums of untraceable Libyan cash to finance the Pakistani nuclear project near Islamabad, which is expected to produce a testable weapon soon.

Qaddafi's relations with Bhutto's successor, Gen. Zia ul-Haq, were far less cordial. By 1978, Qaddafi, perhaps realizing that he lacked real leverage to ensure that Zia would finally deliver to Lybia a nuclear bomb in return for whatever payments had been made, began to demand political conditions Zia was unwilling to meet. The "Pakistani connection" was broken.

The Indians -- India's Bharat nuclear power corporation -- were next to talk to the Libyans, and may still be doing so. Meanwhile, in 1976, the Soviets had agreed to supply Libya with a 400 MW power reactor, also useful for desalting sea water, and a small MW research reactor. The research reactor is reported installed and working near Okbah ibn Nafi air base, formerly Wheelus Field, outside Tripoli.

The Soviets may or may not deliver the larger reactor. Under normal Soviet practice, this would be strictly safe-guarded to prevent its use as a producer of weapons-grade material. In any case, Qaddafi's scientists hope the Indians and perhaps European or U.S. firms and individuals will sell needed technology and materials for another reactor, possibly using Indian designs copied from U.S. and Canadian ones.

Qaddafi's biggest problems will be to assemble the reprocessing plant to make plutonium or to build a plant to enrich uranium from Niger (or Chad). He must also find someone to sell him the core of the bigger reactor and hire enough trained talent through the ADI or other channels. Of some 3,000 Libyan students in the United States, 200 are now following in the footsteps of Fathi Nooh and studying nuclear physics. The Libyans believe more scientist will be attracted by offers they can't refuse.

Iraq has a nuclear program. But Qaddafi seems determined to become the first Arab leader to be able to respond, in kind, to Israel's presumed nuclear deterrent. This could be his ticket to leadership in the Arab world. nIf he is successful, defense analysts predict a rapid nuclearization of the Middle East.