A HOST of concerns, some with merit, threaten to cloud the clear need of the conference now under way at the United Nations on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. That indisputable need is to extend the NPT -- indefinitely.
The NPT bars any of its more than 170 signatory nations -- except the five already declared nuclear states (Russia, China, Britain, France, and the United States) -- from developing nuclear weapons. Ratified in 1970 for a 25-year period, it now must be renewed.
The declared nuclear states all seek indefinite extension. Arms control specialists worry that a treaty extension for a limited time -- particularly a short interval such as five or 10 years -- would put pressure on nonnuclear states to attempt covert nuclear-weapons development or procurement in order to be hedged against a world without the NPT.
But a number of nonnuclear states argue that indefinite extension removes any leverage they have to force the nuclear powers to live up to unfulfilled promises in the 1970 treaty, particularly provisions that they will work toward total elimination of their nuclear arsenals and share their peaceful nuclear technology.
Regional rivalries are also causing nations to oppose the treaty. Egypt says it won't sign unless Israel signs. But Israel says it won't sign until it is officially at peace with all its neighbors. Pakistan, assumed to secretly possess nuclear weapons, says it will sign the treaty if its archrival India will. But India, which also has nuclear weapons, plans not to sign.
The balloting on extending the treaty is now scheduled for May 9. A crucial factor will be whether it is an open roll call or a secret vote. A secret ballot would let any nation unhappy with some aspect of the treaty oppose it without taking a public stand. But as Finnish UN Ambassador Pasi Patokallio pointed out at the conference this week, ''If you look at the importance of the decision ... this is something where states have to make their position clear.''
The NPT is not the solitary solution to the threat of nuclear-arms proliferation. But it has had much too good a track record for the nations gathered in New York to do anything less than give overwhelming, and public, endorsement to its indefinite extension.