IMAGINE it is April 16, 1984. Following a period of tension, the Soviet Union explodes two nuclear weapons about 65 miles above Tennessee and Nevada. A microsecond burst of energy called electromagnetic pulse destroys our solid-state electronic equipment and blacks out our communications. Shortly thereafter, a barrage of submarine-launched missiles strikes our 10 major oil refining areas. Five million Americans have been killed, but retaliation would put the rest of us at risk. Blinded and with early economic recovery impossible, the American president sues for peace. World War III is over in a matter of hours.

That is how Wilson Clark, a former energy adviser to California Governor Jerry Brown, and Jake Page, contributing editor to Science 81 magazine, begin their provocative book, Energy, Vulnerability, and War. Their theme is that "we are about to see one of the greatest international conflicts of our time--the energy war. The United States and the Soviet Union are already engaged . . ." Conventional policies cannot protect the nation, but decentralized energy alternatives can reduce U.S. vulnerability and prevent "the energy war from enveloping our planet in a nuclear holocaust."

This interesting book on a critical national problem is a shortened and popularized version of an earlier report to the Federal Emergency Management Agency on dispersed, decentralized and renewable energy sources as alternatives to national vulnerability and war. The first half of the book is an account of national security vulnerability; the second half a survey of energy alternatives to what the authors call "this Trojan Horse of centralization." The book's problem lies in the relation of the two halves. It reads almost as if the authors started with a preferred solution--decentralized and renewable energy sources--and tacked it on to a fashionable and important current problem--energy vulnerability.

This is not to argue that there is no relationship between decentralization and vulnerability. Clearly there is. But the crucial questions are how quickly and at what cost decentralized and renewable energy strategies can reduce our vulnerability. And the burden of proof is on the authors to show that, in the next decade or two, decentralization measures must replace, rather than complement, other components of an energy security strategy which they criticize--such as oil stockpiles and a strong military posture in the Persian Gulf.

Clark and Page criticize the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) which now holds some 180 million barrels of oil in five salt domes in Texas and Louisiana and is scheduled to rise to 750 million barrels by 1987. They do not take issue with the numerous studies which show that this oil will be worth two or three times its current value in reducing damage to our economy at a time of import interruption. They object that locating "the nation's oil insurance policy in one place (although, in fact, it is in several physical places), even if it is down a few thousand feet underground, is to stick one's jaw out in the manner of Muhammad Ali (who lost) and beg for an act of sabotage."

But the SPR is not the whole insurance policy. In fact, it is smaller than our more dispersed private stocks. Moreover, five underground sites can be guarded against sabotage. Of course, the SPR remains vulnerable to nuclear attack. But so do all of America's cities and countless other economic targets such as airports, bridges, rail junctions, and reservoirs. Should they also be decentralized? At what cost? Can we really decentralize all the nation's key activities "to such an extent that nuclear targeting of central points would become a meaningless pursuit?" If not, is not the SPR equally protected by the same means as other targets, i.e., an effective military posture and nuclear deterrent? Clark and Page weaken their own argument and the thrust of their initial bone-chilling scenario when they admit that "a truly limited nuclear war is a remote possibility." They cite an Office of Technology Assessment study to show that the collateral damage from attacking oil facilities and other economic targets would, in fact, oblige a president to retaliate and would lead to unpredictable devastation.

It is hard to fault Clark and Page when they turn to extolling the virtues of energy efficiency and conservation, except to wish that they had brought their numbers up to date to show how decentralized market decisions in response to decontrolled oil prices have helped reduce oil imports from the 9 million barrels a day level which they cite to the current level of about 6 million barrels per day. One can also agree with their argument that subsidies for centralized energy sources, which characterize a large part of the Department of Energy's budget, should not be allowed to prevent the small-scale technologies that they advocate from competing fairly in the marketplace.

Similarly, one can agree that there is some security benefit in decentralized sources. But how much? Many economists agree with the notion of a "security premium"--an amount which reflects the collective benefit to society of reducing our vulnerability to energy disruptions. This benefit may not be fully represented by current market prices. Some see the size of the premium at about $10 per barrel above the market price of oil. Clark and Page do not have an analysis which furthers this debate, but it is ironic to find them roundly attacking synthetic fuel projects, some of which may be in the range of a $10 premium, while defending gasohol, which has an effective subsidy five or six times that high! What price decentralization? Alas, they do not tell us. They deserve credit for drawing our attention to an interesting and important set of questions. One can only wish that there was more analysis in support of their answers.