Although the debate about strategic nuclear arms control has dominated the news lately, the Reagan administration now has before it a true "test case" in a less publicized area of the nuclear arms question-- nuclear proliferation. This case, India's request for reactor components for its nuclear plant at Tarapur (a city just north of Bombay), is important for two reasons.

First and foremost, the manner in which the U.S. government responds to the Indian request will reveal the strength of our commitment to halting the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Second, this case demonstrates the potential impact on U.S. nonproliferation policy of the recent Supreme Court decision on the legislative veto.

India has made an urgent request to the administration for component parts for two reactors at Tarapur that have developed serious radiation leaks. In my opinion, it will be difficult for the administration to honor this request without violating U.S. nonproliferation law. This law, the so-called Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act, passed by Congress in 1978, contains a provision banning exports of nuclear material to countries "engaged in activities . . . having direct significance for the manufacture or acquisition of nuclear explosive devices. . . ." The problem is that there have been strong hints that India could be preparing for a second nuclear test, and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi has in fact refused to rule out further nuclear testing.

India first exploded a nuclear device in 1974, calling it a "peaceful nuclear explosion." However, Pakistan, with which India has been in deep dispute for over three decades, does not see it quite that way. Many proliferation experts fear that the Pakistanis are clandestinely acquiring their own bomb-making capability.

Under NNPA, the president may waive the prohibition against nuclear exports to India, but Congress may overturn this decision by passing a concurrent resolution within 60 days of his action. However, the congressional veto power granted to Congress in the NNPA, and many other laws, could now be invalidated by the recent Supreme Court ruling against the legislative veto. The uncertainty here is the breadth of the court's decision: the case involved a one- house veto, while the NNPA provides that both houses of Congress must vote to block a presidential action.

The NNPA's two-house veto was a useful nonproliferation tool three years ago when Congress nearly succeeded in blocking another ill-advised nuclear export deal to India by another administration. The facts of the case were these: under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) of 1970, signed by 115 nations including the United States and the Soviet Union, the nuclear "have" nations agreed to supply the nuclear "have-not" nations with nuclear technology for peaceful purposes in return for a pledge from the non-nuclear states to forgo the acquisition of nuclear weapons and submit all their nuclear facilities to periodic inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency, an arm of the United Nations. These inspections are called full-scope safeguards.

Unfortunately, a number of countries that are major proliferation risks--India, Pakistan, South Africa, Brazil and Argentina to name several--have not signed the treaty.

In order to exert pressure on these countries to allow inspection of all their facilities, Congress passed the NNPA, which, in addition to the provision previously mentioned, contains another provision banning nuclear exports to countries that do not accept IAEA safeguards on all their facilities.

In 1980, President Carter wanted to continue to supply nuclear fuel to India even though the Indians do not accept full-scope IAEA safeguards. Carter exercised his authority to waive this ban granted to him by the NNPA. Although the House voted resoundingly, 298-98, to overturn the waiver, the Senate upheld Carter's action in a close vote, 48-46. On this vote I was pleased to join forces with my colleague, Sen. John Glenn, who led the fight against the fuel exports. Too bad we lost.

With our veto power now in doubt, it is all the more important for those of us in Congress to speak out loudly and try to influence public opinion on the proliferation issue. Regarding India's current request for reactor parts, the administration should not provide India with the parts it needs, nor should it arrange for other countries to do so. Instead, it should try to persuade all the major nuclear suppliers-- mainly ourselves and our European allies --to withhold parts from the Indians until they: 1) make it clear that they are not planning another nuclear test and 2) accept full-scope IAEA safeguards. If we who are already in the nuclear business, either for civilian or military purposes, are really serious about wanting to stop proliferation, this is the kind of bold, forceful step that we have no choice but to take.

We must recognize that what drives countries like India and Pakistan to join the nuclear club is not some perverse affection for nuclear weapons but a much more human emotion--fear. They are afraid for their security in a hostile world, just as our concern about Soviet military power and our desire to deter its use against us forces us to deploy nuclear weapons. Therefore, it is vital that we strengthen the international nonproliferation system, or regime, as it is sometimes called, so that frightened countries will come to trust it as a way of removing the nuclear terror.

On June 7, 1981, Israeli fighter-bombers executed the first overt military attack in history on a nuclear facility, destroying Iraq's Osirak research reactor. The Israelis acted because they did not trust the peaceful intentions of a nuclear program being developed by an uncompromising enemy and because they had an equal distrust for the international nonproliferation regime. While many expressed alarm and outrage that military force was used to resolve this question, I think the Israelis did us all a favor by reminding us of our responsibility to countries afraid of a nuclear threat from hostile neighbors.

We can exercise that responsibility by taking a tough stand on the export of component parts to India. If we are not willing to take this type of action both now and in the future, we should not be surprised when another Osirak-style raid occurs by some other threatened nation, or, worse still, when one of these countries actually uses a nuclear weapon against an adversary. We have the power to prevent these horrible outcomes; the question is, do we have the will?