A truck carrying uranium to a nuclear power plant rounds a curve on a deserted country road and suddenly halts in the face of heavy fire from shotguns and semi-automatic rifles.
A gang of terrorists swarms out of the bushes and rushes the truck, killing its driver and several guards. The terrorists seize the uranium and haul it off to a secret laboratory to make a thermo-nuclear bomb.
That country, is not in America but on the board of "Skirmish," a new game developed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to help teach its personnel how to prevent such a nightmare.
It's one of several "energy games" the federal government has come up with to educate the public or its employes about aspects of the energy crisis.
Some critics say that the games are a waste of taxpayer money because their assumptions are so simple that they are useless. Others charge the games are often based on false -- or distorted -- information.
"Skirmish" was created for $30,000 as part of a $1 million NRC contract to develop ways of evaluating the transportation of nuclear materials over roads, according to Robert L. Rinne, the scientist who created the game at Sandia Laboratories in Livermore, Calif.
To play the game, opponents move pieces representing terrorists, guards, trucks, escorts and weapons around a board representing hilly terrain. When a man is killed or wounded a "K" or "W" marker is placed near him.
While the NRC did not intend for the public to use the game, it is not a classified secret and a booklet outlining the game is available from the agency.
"It's basic war gaming," said Donald R. Chapell, the NRC's deputy director of safeguards. "You can go into any library and learn this [type of information]."
"It's extremely beneficial before a field exercise because it gets your mind in the right framework," said Rinne.
"It's money down the rat hole," said a congressional staff aide who asked not to be named. "You'd be better off to call up the Special Forces and ask them how to defend a convoy."
Special Forces Capt. Terry Lee, an operations officer at Fort Bragg, N.C., said games like "Skirmish" have a "limited" usefulness. While he said the games "get people to thinking about options," they only cover a few of the vast number of variables that could come into play in an ambush.Lee said the Special Forces don't use such games in their preparation for combating ambushes.
Jay Durst, the NRC's assistant director for safeguards and system performance research, said the game "seemed a reasonable way to get people associated with the shipments to think about the . . . problem."
But the problem doesn't loom as large as it once did. When research on the game was begun in 1976, it looked as though the United States would allow nuclear fuel reprocessing -- and trucks would make 1,000 trips a year carrying the dangerous material. But the reprocessing was delayed and shipments of the material now total only 10 to 20 a year.
The NRC also has a more complicated board game, "Ambush," covering the same theme, and a third one based on the idea of terrorists attacking a nuclear power plant.
The NRC is not the only federal agency to play games with energy issues.
The Department of Energy has a computer game called the "Energy-Environment Simulator," which it makes available for public meetings.
By manipulating dials on a computer, players try to "maintain a supply of fossil fuels for as long as possible . . ." Each of the 100 copies of the game costs $2,000.
Burrell Wood, of DOE public affairs, said the game was played by nearly a half-million people last year -- students, Rotary Club members, women's groups, technical societies and so on.
But this game has not escpaed controversy, either.
"It's a toy to send out to the ladies' club and have them all surprised. It's totally meaningless," said James D. Matheny, dean of the school of engineering at California State University at Fresno. "The Department of Energy has squandered incredible quantities of money in their inability to come to grips with the nation's energy problem." o
Matheny was on a list of about 100 professors to whom the DOE sent the computer games for use in their communities. Later his name was deleted.
But another of the professors, Steve Crawshaw of the department of physics and astronomy at the University of Arkansas, said he likes the game "very much. It brings up the physics and all sorts of points like ecology, thermal and social problems."
Players begin the game by setting dials to represent all of America's energy resources -- coal, oil, natural gas, hydroelectric, power, nuclear and "new technology" like solar. Other indicators on the computer face show how these resources are used in industry, transportation, households and agriculture.
There are also indicators showing environmental impact and personal energy use per capita.
Then the computer is turned on, simulating the use of energy in America at a certain rate, such as 10 years a minute. The players adjust the dials to keep the country's energy use and supply in balance without adversely affecting the environment or living standards.
Crawshaw gave an example of how the game was played once: "A church group wanted to cut pollution and make sure our energy resources lasted. In the process, they immediately cut down our standard of living something horribly, and you can't do that."
Wood of the Energy Department said the game "enables the average person to get a better sense of the reality of the energy situation."
But Fred Millar, a member of the Potomac Alliance, an anti-nuclear groups, said the DOE literature on the game is "filled with dubious assumptions" -- for example, that nuclear power is essential to the national economy. Millar said he is afraid that assumption and others are built into the computer game.
Wood said, though, that the game is open-ended. Its only built-in assumption, he said, is that if this country ignores the energy problem, it will run out of energy. CAPTION: Picture 1, Rule book for "Skirmish" shows gunman hijacking uranium transport. Nuclear Regulatory Commission; Picture 2, Burrell Wood displays Department of Energy's computer game, which was played by nearly 500,000 people last year. By Tom Allen -- The Washington Post