THE 111 atomic power plants in the United States provided one of every five watts of electricity consumed here last year. Generation by nuclear fission reached a record 6 quadrillion British thermal units (although, because of the conversion inefficiencies and transmission losses in all electrical generation, less than 2 quads reached end users).Uranium, the fuel, is "so plentiful that it's hard to conceive of it ever running out," says Carl Goldstein, a spokesman at the US Council for Energy Awareness (USCEA), the trade association for manufacturers, utilities, and other companies in the nuclear power business. "And there is no scramble," he adds. "You're not dependent on any one part of the world for uranium the way you are for oil." Yet since 1973, the year of the Arab oil embargo, every order placed in the US for a nuclear plant was later canceled - more than 100 in all. There have been no US orders at all since 1978, when the Iranian revolution came to a boil. That's the legacy of the industry's environmental opposition, poor construction-management, cost overruns, regulatory instability, and the 1979 partial core meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. Three nuclear plants are nearing completion, and five others are dormant. Mr. Goldstein says, "We either stop there or start the next generation of orders. It's a major turning point now." Faced with growth in base-load demand, utilities must start building something. Electricity consumption has grown 58 percent since 1973. The Bush administration expects the nation to require 28 to 40 percent more generating capacity by 2010. Forecasts considered in drafting the national energy strategy (NES) vary widely, however; some have end-user electricity demand in 2030 falling by 35 percent from last year's level. Others see an increase of 140 percent. By the widest margin in a decade, 58 percent to 37 percent, a USCEA-sponsored tracking poll found, the public favors construction of more nuclear plants - but not in their communities, Goldstein says. Thus, in what he calls "a political expediency, a surrender to groundless fears," the Shoreham plant on New York's Long Island was completed in 1985, never allowed to operate, and now will be junked. It would have saved 8 million barrels of oil per year. The NES says several steps must be taken merely to maintain nuclear's 20 percent share - and without them nuclear could virtually disappear. First is to reform the licensing procedure so utilities can be confident of getting a license if they build their plant right. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has already streamlined the procedure to the limit of its authority. Now Congress should pass a law to "bulletproof" the changes, Goldstein says. Second, manufacturers must develop simpler, safer, smaller, standardized, and less expensive plants. General Electric and Westinghouse are already working on designs that they hope can be pre-certified as acceptable by the NRC, then sold "off the shelf" to utilities. The NES envisions that designs for advanced reactors will be certified by 1995 and the first plants will begin operation by 2000. Third, the government must get going on a repository to take the existing 22,000 tons of waste, most now stored at the reactor sites. By law it must take charge of the waste in 1998, although a repository won't be ready for a decade after that. Last month the Department of Energy finally received enough permits from Nevada to begin geological assessments at Yucca Mountain, the site favored by Congress. Fourth, some existing plants are approaching the end of their 40-year operating licenses and must renew them with the NRC, which is giving its rules a final review. First up will be Yankee Rowe in Massachusetts. Although its license runs through 2000, plant officials are preparing now for what's expected to be a seven-year process.