The nuclear energy industry has done well, but luck and the energy crisis saved it from poor planning, according to the Rank Corp. think tank.

The early management of the industry was so poor that the United States might have given up on the nuclear power program, but it was saved by the oil shortage, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, the Arab oil embargo and other unforeseen boosts, said a Rand study released Wednesday.

"That nuclear power is competitive at all is due les to foresightful management than to a series of unanticapated events, like the OPEC price agreements, that increased the cost of fossil fuel," said Robert Perry, the study's chief investigator.

Safety and environmental problems that emerged in the last decade, along with unexpectedly high costs, might have brought construction of nuclear power plants to a half without these unforeseen incentives, he said.

Much of the basic decision making in the 1950s was based on political desires, unfounded optimism, "informed intuition" - hunches - and - erroneous assumptions, the report said.

Nevertheless, it said, the 65 nuclear electricity generating plants have served the United States well.

"Despite technical and institutional problems, the operational history of the large nuclear plants (has been) as good or better than large modern fossil fuel plants," it said.

The two-year study made for the National Science Foundation as a guide for industry and government, estimated problems cost the two giants of the nuclear industry - Westinghouse and General Electric - $875 million to $1 billion in the 1960s.