A stark question keeps nagging both the Carter administration and its critics: Has world hunger for nonoil energy and for nuclear weapons finally let the genie of nuclear proliferation out of the bottle, where the world's "big five" atomic powers have tried to coop it up?
This is reflected in two problems facing Congress, the US intelligence community, and the public. One stems from President Carter's highly publicized decision to overturn a US government order against sending India nuclear fuel for its Tarapur nuclear reactor and electric plant.
The second, related problem, is much less publicized. It is whether the US can detect, let alone control, test explosions by new or "threshold" nuclear states or groups. The still unexplained, nuclear-type flash "seen" by a US satellite over the Southern Hemisphere last Sept. 22 is a case in point.
Congress has 60 days to consider and possibly override the President's Tarapur fuel decision. Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher told the House Foreign Relations Committee June 24 that India might consider its obligations to the US under the US-India nuclear agreement ended if shipments are discontinued.
With this pact, the US agreed to supply low-enriched uranium fuel until 1993 for Tarapur. India, after its May 1974 "peaceful" nuclear explosion, promised the US it would use the fuel only for power generation, not explosions.
Mr. Christopher told committee members that India might also withdraw US-supplied nuclear fuel from safeguards, the first time this would have occurred. "This could seriously undermine the whole nonproliferation regime" -- to be discussed this summer at a conference to review the 1968 Non- Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
The more than 200 tons of low-enriched uranium already supplied for Tarapur is "under safeguards and has not been reprocessed [into weapons-grade material]; and India has met all of its other obligations under the 1963 agreement," Mr. Christopher said.
According to the 1978 US Non-Proliferation Act, a recipient -- like India -- of US nuclear material must have all its nuclear activities under international safeguards after a grace period. India has accepted safeguards for Tarapur and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors are on the site. But other Indian nuclear installations are not under international safeguards.
The present fuel applications were filed during the grace period. In addition, Mr. Christopher added, the US believes "the Indian government will not go beyond Mr. Ghandi's statement that India intends to use nuclear energy only for peaceful purposes."
Mr. Christopher and other US officials stress that since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Mrs. Gandhi's government has moved from an uncritical view of that invasion to one opposing it and calling for Soviet withdrawal. It has improved relations with Pakistan -- known to be pursuing a nuclear explosives research program of its own -- and, said Mr. Christopher, "continues to play a moderate role in the nonaligned movement."
Breaking the US commitment to India, and so rebuffing Mrs. Gandhi, might facilitate Soviet fuel supplies and generally enhance Soviet influence, the Carter administration argues. The US would also risk losing its present veto over how India uses the spent fuel.
The India decision, say administration officials and congressmen, will be carefully watched by other nuclear customers of the US, especially those on or near the threshold of possible weapons development. Argentina is one of these, and Brazil, which has entered a close nuclear supply relationship with West Germany, is another. Both have fully safeguarded installations, but neither is willing to commit itself to new international safeguards for the future of their long-delayed nuclear programs.
Spain now is negotiating with the IAEA to accept safeguards for all of its nuclear research and power facilities. The US has no present nuclear relationships with the two other leading "threshold" countries, Israel and South Africa, neither of which has signed the NPT.
The parallel problem of identifying possible clandestine nuclear tests involves US intelligence monitoring capabilities. These are crucial to verifying either the now shelved SALT II arms-control accord with the USSR or any other future arms-control agreements.
Last September's mysterious three-phase, nuclear-type flash in the Southern Hemisphere is still officially a mystery to the US government. A recent documentary program on BBC television in Britain and the Washington-based newsletter "Strategy Week" have flatly identified it as an Israeli test of a neutron or enhanced-radiation weapon, assisted by the South African Navy.
A US scientific panel sponsored by President Carter's science adviser, Dr. Frank Press, shied away from such a conclusion and found there was more than a 50-50 chance it was a natural event, like a meteorite. But Dr. Robert Kerr, director of the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, told the Monitor that the US Vela satellite which detected it had never mistaken a nonnuclear flash for a neutron source before.
"The whole incident," he said, "reflects disturbingly on our ability to monitor events in remote parts of the world."