Apparent shift in French nuclear export policy fuels intense debate

French nuclear fuel to India - without full safeguards. A nuclear reactor for South Africa.

The two actions are not explicitly linked - the Indian fuel contract was just signed at the end of last month while the reactor sale to South Africa is only under consideration. And French and American diplomats say that neither deal means the government of FrancoisMitterrand is planning to revert to the pre-1977 free-wheeling French nuclear export policy.

But the actions once again have raised questions about the French commitment to nuclear non-proliferation. Moreover, the potential South African deal has caused a nasty dispute within the Mitterrand government.

France is substituting for the US as the supplier of enriched uranium fuel for India's Tarapur nuclear power plant near Bombay. This arrangement was worked out last summer when President Reagan met in Washington with India's prime minister, Indira Ghandi.

The US had helped India build the Tarapur plant in 1963 and had contracted to supply fuel for the plant until 1993. But the 1978 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act halted American fuel shipments to India and other countries that refuse to accept inspection of their nuclear installations.

France's agreement to take over as the fuel supplier for Tarapur thus removed a thorn in the US-Indian relations, American diplomats here say. ''The French-Indian arrangements are fine, close to what we envisaged,'' says one American diplomat.

Nevertheless, France apparently has abandoned the code agreed to by 15 nations (including France) that export nuclear fuel and technology. Under these 1978 guidelines, perpetual safeguards are required. French Foreign Ministry officials say, though, that the Indians are only being asked to talk about new safeguards after Tarapur's original safeguards expire in 1993.

The London rules also require the Indians to agree to inspections of other fast-breeder reactors if they use spent fuel from the Tarapur plant. The French officials say this question is ignored in the French-Indian agreement. Because of these exemptions, two members of the US Congress have vigorously criticized the deal.

''The arrangement represents a drastic departure from US non-proliferation policy,'' Sen. Gary Hart (D) of Colorado and Rep. Richard L. Ottinger (D) of New York wrote President Reagan.

But French and American diplomats here say the Tarapur deal was a special case and does not signal a general softening of France's nuclear export policy. During the mid-1970s, France angered the Ford and Carter administrations by agreeing to sell nuclear power plants to a string of third-world countries, most controversially Iraq and Pakistan.

But in 1977, President Valery Giscard d'Estaing barred further exports of nuclear fuel reprocessing plants, such as Pakistan had ordered, which can produce the plutonium needed to make atomic bombs. And in 1978, France agreed to the stiff London rules.

''These remain the principles behind our nuclear export policy,'' a French Foreign Ministry official said.

He added that such principles would be respected in any future nuclear deal with South Africa. In 1976, despite strong criticism from black Africa, France had sold Pretoria two reactors.

The South Africans are now considering whether they want another French reactor. They will probably decide whether to ask France to supply the reactor sometime next year, according to French Foreign Ministry officials.

Already, though, published reports say the Mitterrand government is divided on whether to pursue the South African deal. Industry Minister Jean-Pierre Chevenement and Foreign Trade Minister Michel Jobert reportedly are arguing that the French nuclear industry cannot turn down a lucrative offer, even if it does come from the apartheid Pretoria regime.

Against this position, Foreign Minister Claude Cheysson has publicly expressed his opposition to such a sale. In a letter to the anti-apartheid movement here in France, he wrote that ''if a sale is proposed, I will personally oppose myself to such a project.''

Reportedly supporting Mr. Cheysson was Mr. Jean-Pierre Cot, minister for the developing world. Mr. Cot left the government last week after conflicts with President Mitterrand and his advisers over relations with Africa.

Mr. Cot was reportedly upset about the Mitterrand government's continued close trade links with South Africa - specifically, the proposed nuclear deal.

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