Geneva's bigger issue

The Geneva talks that start today reach toward an issue even broader than the American and Soviet nuclear weapons they seek to limit in Europe. It is the issue of the dangerous spread of the bomb to countries beyond the so-called nuclear club (the US and USSR along with Britain, France, and China).

To deter this spread, the superpowers have long been called upon to set an example of restraining their own appetite for the weapons they would deny to those outside the club. Instead they have been accelerating the nuclear arms race, seeming to retreat from abhorrence of nuclear weapons to increased acceptance of their warfighting possibilities. Successful reduction of regional nuclear arms in Europe would be a step in the right direction. Followed by a vigorous renewal of Soviet-American global nuclear arms talks, it could aid the international effort against nuclear proliferation by making the bomb less me-too attractive.

As it is, after decades of remarkable nuclear stability, concerns are rising about the nuclear intentions and capabilities of as many as ten nations. To help public awareness slow the rush, some ''thoroughly alarmed'' diplomats and scientists in various countries have been telling this newspaper in private of developments their governments do not publicize. Their disclosures are part of a series beginning in this issue: ''On the trail of the A-bomb makers,'' by correspondent David Willis. It also includes ways to reduce the threat.

The future must not be allowed to become one in which governments take the law into their own hands, as Israel did in raiding Iraq's nuclear reactor - and as some would recklessly advise India to do as Pakistan tries to catch up with nuclear India. Rather every avenue toward nonproliferation must be pursued. There must be adherence to the international nonproliferation treaty (NPT) by the majority of nations which are its members.

There must be effective international inspection of peaceful nuclear installations wherever they may be. Among other possible means are:

- The tighter control of nuclear materials, perhaps leasing rather than selling highly enriched uranium.

- The assurance of reliable supply of nuclear materials for peaceful purposes.

- The safeguarding of materials produced and transported in connection with breeder reactors and reprocessing plants.

But technical procedures do not get at the root of proliferation. Virtually any country with the will to do so is believed able to obtain the information and materials necessary to make a nuclear explosive device. Would any country be willing to give up sufficient sovereignty to permit total scrutiny by international authorities?

What needs to be attained is the political and moral determination to pull the world back from the brink of bomb proliferation. The proposal for regional nuclear-free zones has merit. But the difficulty of obtaining full and final ratification of the Latin American nuclear-free zone suggests that international institutions can go only so far if they don't have cooperation from all nations in a region.

Fundamentally, the conditions for trust must be established. Nations can be helped to help themselves feel economically and politically secure, less prone to look toward their very own bomb as a security blanket. This means not only internal stability but stable relations with neighbors. These will be better achieved as disparities between nations and regions are reduced.

In a word, peace. Which brings us back to the talks starting in Geneva. As we wrote last summer, ''It is not morally consistent or politically palatable for the United States and the Soviet Union to try to stop other nations from producing atomic bombs when they themselves are locked in an escalating nuclear weapons race.'' A year before, at the nonproliferation treaty review conference, one of the major contentious issues was the role of the superpowers in arms control. They do not help nonproliferation when they disdain arms control.

Now at least the superpowers are talking - and doing so seriously. That should help efforts to keep the nuclear club from expanding.

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.