AH, THOSE WERE HEADY days back in the 1890s, when "naughty, naughty X-Rays" gave the nation hope of peeking beneath all the whalebone corsets. The magic rays were used in an effort (unsuccessful) to photograph the human soul. Later on, it was H.G. Wells who, writing in 1914, first predicted nuclear weapons and the terror of nuclear war. But of course that was just science fiction.

Things were so much simpler when all scientists were benevolent wizards and the government's word was sound as a dollar used to be. But science was wrong about the atom, and the government repeatedly lied to us, first about fallout and then about reactor oversight. Now nuclear power, rightly or wrongly, is taking the rap for the sins of its promoters.

In the 1920s women painting radium watch dials twirled the brushes between their lips to get a good point before each stroke. Eventually they began to develop mouth cancer. Doctors who had routinely adjusted X-ray machine strength by fluoroscoping their own hands began to see their skin peel away. The debate over nuclear safety started then, and it hasn't stopped since.

Each of these four books tries to sell its own understanding of -- and verdict on -- the mysterious atom. Together they cover atomic energy from the discovery of X-rays to the building of bombs and giant reactors. We learn who first said nuclear power would one day be "too cheap to meter" (Lewis Strauss, first chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, in 1954); why a reactor shutdown is called a "scram"; and how the events at Three Mile Island in 1979 proved either that reactor technology works well or that it does not.

What these books do not offer, however, is that informed consensus of opinion among intelligent experts that is so comforting for laymen. Instead we have three well-written but contradictory polemics and one semi-successful attempt to be bipartisan.

None of these books will convert a friend who disagrees with you, and the truly open-minded reader will come away as uncertain as before, albeit with much more information, a lot more irritation and many more questions. Perhaps that is good.

The effort to be bipartisan in Nuclear Power: Both Sides perhaps inevitably faces off the loudest voices in each army, and the old adversaries again shout past each other, leaving the reader deafened by an avalanche of conflicting numbers.

Still, the place to begin for an overview, and perhaps the place to stop, is with Kaku and Trainer's chapter introductions, which sum up the issues far more coherently and fairly than any of their debaters, or than any of the other books. There are sections on nuclear finance, radiation safety, waste disposal and so on, each followed by excruciatingly detailed essays from the pro-nuclear and anti-nuclear sides.

We have, for example, anti-nuclear health physicist Karl Z. Morgan citing countless studies in his article "Underestimating the Risks" of radiation, while nuclear physicist Bernard L. Cohen finds just as many studies "Exaggerating the Risks" in his piece by that title.

Where Ralph Nader and Richard P. Pollock argue that soaring nuclear construction costs are the result of managerial ineptitude, business writer Tony Velocci Jr. blames over-regulation and critics' delaying tactics. These are familiar arguments, but don't expect help in deciding who's right.

One of the three efforts to convince, Daniel Ford's Cult of the Atom, ignores pro-nuclear arguments altogether and instead relates fascinating startlers from inside the regulatory world. It is not "a shattering expos,e" as its jacket blurb promises, but rather a recounting of the times the Atomic Energy Commission failed to reconcile what Ford calls its "incompatible roles of coach and umpire, of partisan as well as judge."

Glenn T. Seaborg, the chemist who first fissioned plutonium and set the world to thinking of reactors that produce more energy than they use, emerges as a major villain, according to Ford, an economist and former chief of the Union of Concerned Scientists. It was Seaborg, "a visionary, dreaming of the future," whose glowing report on nuclear power to President John F. Kennedy gave less than a page to reactor safety.

At the same time, bureaucrat Stephen Hanauer, a nuclear engineer for the AEC and then the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, starts out as a goat for helping to quash internal unease over emergency core cooling systems, and winds up a hero for his biting internal memoranda. He keeps a file on some of the more outlandish power plant romps, like the time a worker tried to plug a big pipe with a basketball, only to flood the building, and he also worries about "generic safety problems" which are so widespread that no one plant is allowed to try to fix them. The reader should probably worry too.

The two remaining books, poles apart, do not fairly state the opposition case they are claiming to refute and so are less convincing than they otherwise might be. Each will thoroughly annoy all but its own partisans and may even alienate some of the uncommitted, although both books are gold mines of factual ammunition for their respective sides.

Samuel McCracken's The War Against the Atom ascends to humor at times, sneering in lofty weariness almost worthy of William F. Buckley (who praises this book) as it slashes awayyat nuclear critics. McCracken, a former researcher at the Boston University Center for Energy, attacks frontally, accusing Nader of "a thoroughgoing coverup" of inconvenient facts and noting that the Union of Concerned Scientists is not all, or even mostly, scientists.

He marshals devastating evidence of inconsistencies and errors by radiation alarmists Helen Caldicott and Ernest Sternglass, saying Sternglass' authority "is founded partially if not wholly on access to a Xerox machine."

"It is common to call nuclear opponents Luddites," McCracken says, "but this does an injustice to Ned Ludd and his followers."

McCracken's introductory lecture on nuclear physics is stupefyingly dull but useful, although his patronizing tone never lets up. He mounts a full-scale attack on media efforts to translate nuclear power, so perhaps I should recuse myself as one of his targets, but his own reporting also leaves out inconvenient facts.

For example, in discussing the 1957 fire and radiation release at Windscale in northwest England, he notes, "Twenty-three years later, no pattern of increased cancer has been attributed to this accident." He neglects to note that the British, who regarded the accident as an embarrassing secret, made virtually no effort to track the people exposed.

Similarly, discussing low-level nuclear waste, he leaves the impression that most of it is hospital gowns or bedsheets. Clearly he knows better.

In the far corner is Nukespeak, by Stephen Hilgartner, Richard C. Bell and Rory O'Connor, an anti-nuclear history irritatingly heavy on italicized words, which are the jargon of a nuclear mindset the authors say has brought us close to nuclear war.

Dedicated to George Orwell, this Sierra Club effort offers entertaining vignettes from very early nuclear history, circa the 1890s -- most of these stories were new to me -- and an absorbing and most useful primer on the levels and procedures of document classification. It is sobering to recall that atom bomb blasts in the West were tourist attractions in the early 1950s.

But the book's tones of shock and revelation over the industry's public-relations efforts are sophomoric, and it interweaves weapon and power-plant discussions in a way that seems calculated to confuse. Ford does a better job on the AEC's offenses, and Kaku and Trainer pose the questions about nuclear power much more clearly.

The debate still awaits a comprehensive, critical analysis by a literate partisan who gives the other side its full debating points and still scores all the hits for his or her own viewpoint. Perhaps such a dispassionate approach is impossible for this most emotional of subjects.