Despite the intensity of their nuclear rivalry, the superpowers last week reaffirmed a commitment to halt the spread of nuclear weapons technology to other countries. But even as Washington and Moscow pledge continuing support for the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), a major new report says continuing clandestine traffic in nuclear technology and equipment is weakening worldwide nonproliferation efforts. The report says the spread of nuclear weapons technology poses ``incalculable risks to the world community.''
In the meantime, some in Congress warn that an agreement, approved by the Senate last week, to sell US nuclear equipment to China could further weaken nonproliferation efforts.
In a joint statement issued at the Geneva summit last week, President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev reaffirmed their support for the 1970 treaty, citing a common interest in ``strengthening together with other countries the nonproliferation regime.''
According to a book released yesterday, nuclear technology continue to spread rapidly despite such pledges.
The book says at least seven emerging nuclear states took steps during the past year to build or expand nuclear weapons capabilities. The result has been to potentially double the size of the ``nuclear club'' and increase the risks that one of the seven could become ``the Sarajevo of the nuclear age.'' The assassination of Austrian Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo, now in Yugoslavia, drew the superpowers of 1914 into World War I.
The book, entitled ``The New Nuclear Nations: The Spread of Nuclear Weapons 1985,'' says proliferating nuclear technology has also increased the risks of nuclear terrorism.
``Despite our best intentions and progress in certain regions like Latin America, the situation has gotten worse before our very eyes,'' says author Leonard S. Spector of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Mr. Spector says the most significant deterioration during the past year has occurred in South Asia, a region dominated by rivalry between India and Pakistan. India may already have the components of a small nuclear arsenal.
At the same time, the report indicates that Pakistan may now have crossed the nuclear threshold, today possessing everything necessary to manufacture at least a handful of nuclear weapons.
Meanwhile, during the past year Israel's reported stockpile of nuclear weapons may have increased by 10 percent, while South Africa's reported stockpiles of nuclear components has grown comparably, says the report.
Two key problems, says Spector, are the continuing underground traffic in nuclear equipment and technology combined with lax enforcement of existing laws.
So far, says Spector, neither safeguards written into the 1970 treaty nor the laws of the various nuclear supplier nations have been effective in regulating what the report describes as the ``nuclear netherworld.''
``In every instance, those accused of nuclear smuggling have received negligible sentences or gone unpunished altogether,'' says Spector. As a result, nuclear weapons potential now exists in areas where political instability and regional rivalries heighten the risks that nuclear weapons could actually be used.
Spector says solving the problem will require more energetic efforts to prosecute individuals and put diplomatic pressure on governments implicated in the illegal transfer of nuclear materials and know-how. ``Despite the difficult diplomatic choices involved, we and our allies need to make it clear that we can't tolerate the flagrant violation of our own laws,'' says the author.
The diplomatic trade-offs involved in nonproliferation policy were illustrated last week when the Senate gave its belated approval to an agreement to provide up to $6 billion in sales of nuclear technology to China.
The agreement was first initaled by President Reagan in April 1984 during a state visit to China. But it was held up for over a year because reports that Peking was supporting Pakistan's efforts to develop a nuclear bomb raised questions about Peking's overall nuclear nonproliferation policy.
Reagan administration officials concede that the China pact does not provide the full safeguards required in other bilateral nuclear cooperation agreements. But they say such safeguards are designed to apply to states which, unlike China, do not already possess nuclear weapons. Reagan administration officials also say the agreement has helped to cement one of the US's most important strategic relationships.
The agreement provides for ad hoc, bilateral exchanges of information with China to oversee implementation of the sale. ``This is sufficient to ensure that anything we supply not be used for proscribed purposes,'' says a State Department official.
But some critics say, by not insisting on full safeguards on the use of US-supplied material, the US has sacrificed nonproliferation principles to its own strategic interests.
``The practical effect won't be disastrous,'' says Peter Clausen of the Union of Concerned Scientists, ``especially since China is now a nuclear weapons state. But it sets a bad precedent because it so loosely interprets the key requirements for nuclear cooperation.'' says Mr. Clausen.