ALTHOUGH overshadowed by reports of superpower disagreement, conferences reopened last week in Vienna at the International Atomic Energy Agency which justify optimism not only for greater nuclear plant safety worldwide but also for significant improvement in relations between the United States and the Soviet Union. In the current tension caused by conflicting espionage accusations in the two countries, the superpowers should not allow themselves to be diverted from this hopeful course. In August, at a five-day symposium on the Chernobyl disaster attended by experts from 62 countries and 21 national and international organizations, the Soviet Union was far more forthcoming than many people had expected in describing the accident and its radiation effects on the population. While not all questions were answered during the conference, the Soviets promised to share additional information as soon as possible.
About a week before this technical conference, representatives of 56 nations, including the US and the Soviet Union, completed two draft conventions, one on information exchange and early warning of nuclear accidents and another on coordinated emergency response to such incidents. Consensus on these agreements was reached in the remarkably short period of four weeks.
Delegates from the energy agency's member states began meetings in Vienna last week to receive the draft conventions and to discuss strengthened international cooperation in nuclear safety. Next month another group of experts will return to consider additional measures for improvement.
Thoughtful people everywhere look to these conferences to produce a unified course of action to lessen the likelihood of accidents at nuclear plants. The August meetings dealt with mitigation -- what should be done after a nuclear accident. The nuclear energy agency must now deal with the issue of prevention -- the improvement of nuclear safety standards worldwide.
Standards already exist; the issue is whether countries will promise to follow them.
The agency has established safety guidelines covering such areas as plant siting, design, and operation. It has offered to conduct on-site reactor safety reviews by teams of it staff and outside experts. There is an agency reporting system through which countries may exchange information on plant malfunctions.
Thus far, however, nations have failed to reach an international agreement binding them to follow the agency's standards. Safety teams are sent only when requested. Exchange of information and use of the reporting system are purely voluntary.
A stronger system of international safety standards, together with a verification system to ensure compliance, would raise difficult technical and political issues. The cost will be high, and governments must be convinced the expense is justified. Moreover, growth in agency safety inspections must not detract from its vital nonproliferation safeguards, which verify that fuel at power plants is not diverted to make weapons.
Delegates at the conferences now under way should go at these issues and determine how rapidly the agency can expand its capacity and authority to deal with nuclear safety. The superpowers must take the lead in this process.
Recent events in Vienna, Stockholm, and elsewhere justify optimism that they will assert such leadership. The US and the Soviet Union have been major supporters of the energy agency, and their joint backing has solidified in the aftermath of Chernobyl. American and Soviet leaders have called for a greater international effort to improve safety in national nuclear programs.
Both nations have agreed to on-site inspections of the dismantling of facilities that produce chemical weapons. During recent negotiations on European confidence-building measures, the parties accepted the principle of limited on-site inspections of internal military activities.
A recent US-Soviet nuclear safety research protocol will permit reciprocal on-site visits to selected nuclear installations in each country next year.
The Chernobyl accident has internationalized the peaceful atom. It has demonstrated that ``a nuclear accident anywhere is a nuclear accident everywhere.'' By submitting a detailed report on the incident to the world community, and by agreeing to accept the two conventions on the mitigation of future accidents, the Soviet Union has exhibited unusual candor and a willingness to cooperate in the improvement of international nuclear safety.
Despite deep superpower disagreement on other issues, let us hope that this cooperative spirit between the US and the Soviet Union in nuclear safety continues to grow, so that the international effort to deal with a painful accident results in genuine progress toward greater peace and security for all nations.
Thad Cochran, a Republican senator from Mississippi, is chairman of the Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Energy, Nuclear Proliferation, and Government Processes.