All civilian nuclear plants, says the Mississippi Republican, should be open to international inspection.

The accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Soviet Union has heightened worldwide interest in the safety of more than 340 commercial nuclear power plants -- more than 240 outside the United States -- which produce more than 13 percent of the world's electricity. These nuclear facilities involve large quantities of radioactive material that must be carefully controlled, a task that is complicated by design and operational differences among the facilities.

The focus for years has been the danger that some of this material might be diverted from peaceful generation of electricity to military production of bombs. In fact, this "proliferation" has long been regarded by many as the major security problem confronting the world, since growth in the number of nations possessing thermonuclear arms might increase the danger of nuclear conflict.

Most nations that have decided to develop civilian nuclear power have gradually come to acept the desirability of controls to inhibit proliferation. These restraints are contained in a collection of treaties, agreements and voluntary commitments to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. A system or "regime" has grown up in which record-keeping, audits, inspections and technical controls ensure that nuclear materials and equipment intended for peaceful use are not diverted to military purposes by countries not already possessing nuclear weapons.

These "safeguards" have become the heart of the international nonproliferation regime. They have evolved principally through the work of the International Atomic Energy Agency, created in 1957 to control as well as to promote nuclear power. They mark the first instance in history of sovereign nations' inviting an impartial international organization to audit their accounts and conduct inspections on their own territory. Some 95 percent of all nuclear installations in countries not possessing nuclear weapons are now under safeguards.

The United States and the Soviet Union have an established record of cooperation in this nonproliferation effort. Both countries were leaders in negotiating the Non-Proliferation Treaty; both ratified the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material; both are major supporters of the IAEA.

What does this have to do with the Chernobyl tragedy?

Just this: the IAEA also has extensive capabilities in the area of nuclear safety that, if they had been used by Soviet authorities, might have averted the catastrophe. IAEA nuclear safety standards cover every aspect of the desig, siting, construction and operation of the most common types of power reactors.

The increasing number of operating nuclear plants makes the prevention of accidents at power stations a widespread concern in the international community. Previously, our concern has been to protect nuclear facilities and materials from diversion for the purpose of making explosives. The IAEA has been effective in strengthening safeguards to give the world this protection.

The improving safeguards system has broad significance as a confidence-building mechanism whereby nations can increasingly rely upon international verification. In this regard, we should take heart from the expressed willingness of all countries already having nuclear weapons -- the United States, the United Kingdom, France, the Soviet Union and China -- to accept safeguards on selected civilian nuclear facilities.

Consideration should now be given to an increase in IAEA's authority to enable the agency to inspect all civilian nuclear facilities for safety, giving an additional meaning to safeguards. We should at once begin an effort, in cooperation with other nations, to persuade the Soviet Union to agree to allow IAEA to choose for inspection any of its civilian nuclear power plants, just as the United States and the United Kingdom already do.

The framework for negotiation and agreement already exists in the nonproliferation regime. As in the case of nonproliferation, international nuclear safety requires constant vigilance. Ensuring a safe nuclear future demands plain talk and deserves our most determined effort.