The Catastrophe at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor will heighten all of the doubts and questions about this unforgiving technology. Since it is a valuable source of power for which many countries will continue to have great need, the Soviet Union -- and other governments as well -- owe the world a response that is candid and substantial, acknowledging the dimensions of this accident and offering people some reason to think that it will not be repeated.

The United States and other Western countries have offered any assistance that could prove helpful in this dire emergency. This is urgent and the right thing to do. All required help must be made available to limit the illness and death and the spread of radiation. The emergency, like the airborne poison, knows no national boundaries. But much more than cleanup is going to be required from both East and West. The meltdown at Chernobyl demonstrates a need for clearer and more useful international standards for notification and for safety enforcement in the world's growing nuclear power industry.

The Soviets owed their neighbors downwind a prompt warning of the disaster. Instead, characteristically, they said nothing until the Swedes, 800 miles away, began picking up the evidence of it. That is unacceptable. Even now the Soviets refuse to provide an accurate description of the accident. If it's true that the graphite pile is on fire, it may be out of control for some considerable time.

International safety standards would be difficult to achieve, but perhaps not totally impossible. The structure already exists. The International Atomic Energy Agency, based in Vienna, has devoted most of its limited resources over the years to restraining the spread of nuclear weapons. Since the United States and the Soviet Union have similar interests here, their relations in the IAEA have been less bad than elsewhere. Last summer, for the first time, the Soviets allowed an IAEA inspection team to go through one of their nuclear power plants. One of the inspectors was an American. The IAEA has been giving increasing attention to safety over the past decade, and it provides a forum for drafting nuclear safety conventions. Similarly, its nonproliferation inspections offer the precedent for at least limited safety enforcement.

Safety standards run into obvious resistance wherever civilian power facilities touch a country's weapons production. The two are highly intermingled in the Soviet Union. The Chernobyl reactor is a type that the Soviets have used to produce both power for industry and plutonium for weapons. Comprehensive inspections are hardly a realistic goal. But something short of that might prove possible. Presumably even the Soviets now realize that they have much to gain from higher standards of performance.

No doubt this disaster will strengthen the campaigns against nuclear power in many countries. But not in the Soviet Union, where the need for electricity is severe and the most available alternate source, oil, can be sold for hard currency in the West. The Soviet Union now has the world's third largest nuclear generating system -- after the United States and France -- and it will continue to build. The cloud of radioactive debris that the wind carried across the Soviet border is the best kind of reason for the West to try to work with the Soviets on reactor safety and management. Progress will be slow, but any progress at all is worth achieving. The incentives are, demonstrably, imperative.