Nuclear power is an enigma for many high school students - as well as for their teachers. Concern that the puzzled students of today are the puzzled voters of tomorrow has prompted a college in New Hampshire to conduct a two-week seminar for 24 junior-high and high-school teachers on nuclear power.
The seminar, called ''Know Nukes,'' is being conducted by Antioch/New England Graduate School in Keene. Co-sponsored by proponents and opponents of nuclear power, it is designed to help teachers bring controversial subjects into the classroom and teach them in an unbiased manner.
''Since it is a major issue in New England, nuclear power is an ideal topic to deal with in this way,'' says Mitch Thomashow of the college's Environmental Studies Department.
Concern over what organizers of the seminar call the lack of attention paid to nuclear power in the high school classroom helped prompt the seminar, which was funded by a grant from the US Department of Energy. Both sides of the issue are represented through the use of speakers, slides, movies, and field trips. Teachers are encouraged to design curricula based on the information obtained during the seminar, for use in their classrooms.
According to an adviser to the seminar, Curt Stone of the New Hampshire Energy Coalition, many teachers avoid talking about controversial subjects in the classroom - including nuclear power - because they don't feel they have enough balanced curriculum materials on the subject to teach it confidently.
''Very few of the group (at the seminar) ever tried to present anything on nuclear power to their students before,'' he says.
According to John Cavanaugh, head of the education center at the controversial Seabrook (N.H.) nuclear power plant, the purpose of the seminar was not to pursuade teachers to form opinions, but to give them a clearer understanding of the questions surrounding nuclear power.
Cavanaugh says one reason teachers haven't talked about nuclear power in the classroom before was their distrust of the sources of information on the subject.
''Teachers haven't known which way to turn for information,'' he says. ''High school students don't know what to think about nuclear power. . . . It's crucial they understand it so they'll be able to make qualified decisions concerning it when they reach voting age.''
Pressure from school administrators against discussing controversial issues such as nuclear power may also be a factor in silencing schoolteachers, says Jim Karlan, a science teacher from Winchester, N.H.
Nuclear power ''needs to be discussed,'' says Herb Moyer, a teacher at Winnacunnet High School in Hampden, N.H. ''Society as a whole is going to have to decide whether this is an acceptable technological means of dealing with energy problems.''
All but two of the 24 teachers participating in the seminar are from New England, where, according to Thomashow, over 33 percent of power is nuclear.
''I came here to find out what ways my perspective on nuclear power is backed up by the information we are receiving, and what ways it is distorted,'' says Moyer, who teaches an ecology course. His school is three miles from the Seabrook plant.
''There's the whole issue of what my responsibilities would be as a teacher, so near to Seabrook, if there was a problem,'' Moyer says. ''I have very strong feelings about nuclear power. I'm trying to find a way, the methods and technology, to present nuclear power as fairly as possible.''
''I am against nuclear power,'' says Shirley Griffin, a high-school teacher from Ashburnham, Mass. ''I didn't feel I could present both sides fairly (in the classroom). The seminar has given me a tremendous insight into the nuclear industry. I feel I can go over the types of plants, how they work, and the major issues concerning nuclear power. It hasn't changed my viewpoint, but now I understand the reasons why I am against it.''
There were few complaints about the effectiveness of the seminar. It did not deal with nuclear weapons and proliferation, other than in a brief discussion by US Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner Victor Galinsky. Some participants said they felt there should have been more on the subject.