EVERY time Paul Tsongas rises in the polls, his Democratic opponents know what to do: They "nuke" him.
It happened in New Hampshire. It happened again in Maine, and then in Colorado. It could happen later in California, the most environmentally sensitive state.
"We do not need to do what Senator Tsongas wants to do and build hundreds of more nuclear plants," chided Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas just hours before the Colorado primary.
Sen. Tom Harkin, before dropping out of the campaign on Monday, had fired his own nuclear salvo at Tsongas. "Paul, ... you are on record as saying that we ought to keep the nuclear option open and build small nuclear power plants," he said in one debate.
The tactic has worked. In Maine the nuclear issue boosted former Gov. Jerry Brown, the most anti-nuclear candidate, to a surprising second-place finish.
In Colorado, which is fiercely pro-environment, Mr. Brown zoomed to first place, and Tsongas slipped to third after leading by a wide margin.
Tsongas, clearly angered by his opponents' attacks, charges that Governor Clinton is distorting his position.
Nuclear power, Tsongas says, was never his first choice for meeting America's energy needs.
Yet Tsongas is clearly being hurt. To voters who are passionately antinuclear, only Brown is "pure."
Brown says flatly: "I want to stop nuclear power now. I want to phase it out. There isn't an answer for [nuclear] waste. That's the immorality.
"That's the short-sightedness. This radioactive waste that is lethal, that is dangerous, that will last for thousands of years, is piling up every minute."
Brown would phase out all production of nuclear power over the next 10 years and replace it with alternatives, such as wind and solar energy.
Tsongas and Clinton both see future roles for nuclear energy. Clinton, for example, favors allowing current nuclear plants to continue operating as long as that can be done safely. But Clinton is sharply critical of Tsongas for suggesting the United States could need additional nuclear plants.
Tsongas argues that, because of the threat of global warming, there must be a nuclear component to America's energy policy.
But it wouldn't be his first choice.
As Tsongas explains his energy policy, he would sharply increase conservation to reduce dependence on imported oil, greatly boost support for benign energy sources such as wind, solar, and geothermal, and increase dependence on natural gas, of which America has an abundance.
Even after taking those three steps, however, Tsongas concedes that additional energy will be needed. Where will it come from? As he puts it: "Pick your poison."
Oil, coal, and nuclear all have problems, he says.
Oil is running out in the US, and importing more from the Persian Gulf might provoke another war.
Coal is very abundant, but it is a major source of gases which Tsongas is convinced are creating a greenhouse, or warming, effect that could melt the polar ice caps. Large areas of the US could eventually be under water. Nuclear power creates waste that no one knows how to dispose of.
In answer to a survey by Energy America, a coalition of environmental, consumer, and sustainable energy organizations, Tsongas said:
"I do not believe that we should now be constructing new nuclear power plants of the current design.
"However, I would support research into whether smaller, safer, better-sited nuclear plants can be developed, so that we will have more energy options in the future if renewables, efficiency, and natural gas are insufficient to meet our energy needs."
In his economic treatise, "A Call to Economic Arms," Tsongas sounds even more favorably disposed toward the nuclear option:
"Given the choice of finding a technological solution to limited amounts of nuclear waste and finding a technological solution to massive quantities of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere [created by coal burning], I will choose the former. Not because it's easy, but because the latter is undoable."
As for oil or nuclear, Tsongas says the choice is between "nuclear waste stored in deep salt mines versus a world in conflict over diminishing fossil fuels.... I choose the former."
Ironically, Tsongas's position could hurt him seriously with conservationists, even though his overall record on the environment is positive.
Beth Johnson, regional staff director of the Southern Plains Region of the Sierra Club, says: "On balance, Clinton's record [on the environment] is not anywhere near as good as Tsongas's."