THAT NOBODY died at Three Mile Island is a cliche from pro-nuclear circles. But the long-run political fallout may prove something else: that the Three Mile Island nuclear scare killed a lot of coal miners.

Since Washington is a town where pressures rather than problems are resolved, the search is on for a quick fix for the nuclear jitters, and coal is likely to be the windfall fuel of the Harrisburg accident. It is abundant and readily minded: output can be tripled with current technology.

Many utilities will turn to coal-fired electricity if a moratorium or phaseout on nuclear power is imposed. And the reason is simple: Coal costs are reasonably predictable and profits fairly dependable. With fuel-supply forecasts predicting that utilities will swing away from oil and gas, less nuclear generation means even greater use of coal.

Coal, however, carries its own risks and costs to human health and safety. The administration's plan to substitute coal for oil (and perhaps nuclear power) will endanger tens of thousands of miners unless mining is done differently.

Coal mine fatalities and injuries are likely to increase 35 percent and 39 percent respectively if annual production in 1985 is two-thirds greater than in 1977 (688 million tons), a new study, "The Direct Use of Coal," by the Congressional office of Technology Assessment predicts.

If production almost tripples by 2000, so will the body count. OTS suggests 370 fatalities and 42,000 disabling injuries is the likely annual toll. Death down, injuries up

Coal comes relatively cheap in dollars and relatively dear in human lives.From a work force of 230,000, 139 miners were killed in 1977 and 15,000 injured, each injury disabling the worker two months on the average. That's both better and worse than 10 years ago.

After a 78-victim disaster in 1968 at a Consolidation Coal mine, Congress passed radical mine safety legislation to eliminate the causes of multi-victim explosions

The 1969 Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act worked. Many fewer miners are now killed in disasters. Yet little change has been recorded since 1973 in the annual number of coal mine fatalities. Without the disasters - and the finger-pointing publicity they generated - the catalyst for tighter regulations is gone.

The 1969 act did not deal specifically with preventing injuries. For every million hours worked, 50 underground miners suffered a disabling injury in 1977. That is the same rate recorded throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Further, the number of disabling injuries has been rising steadily as more miners are hired to mine more coal.

Ten years ago, Congress also addressed the scandal of work-related lung disease among coal miners.

A strict dust standard was phased in that, the legislators were told, would prevent new cases of disabling lung disease and arrest the progression of those already in evidence. Today questions were asked about the inherent safety of this standard. And other questions have been raised about how many of the nation's 6,000 mines actually comply with the standard every day. A recent study done in east Kentucky found that more than one-quarter of the workplace dust samples the operators submitted to the government were no higher than those taken in fresh air. That, the study said, is "unrealistically low."

Compliance with the current dist standard should drastically reduce the number of miners disabled by pneumoconiosis in the future.Yet it is not a zero-risk standard. Assuming diligent compliance, OTA says that more than 10,000 cases of pneumoconosis will be found among working miners in 2000. Even more cases of bronchitis, emphysema and other lung impairments are likely. Blaming the victims

Anyone with grade-school multiplication skills can work up such body counts. Indeed, several in the executive branch already have. Yet mine safety stands cold on the political back burner, and I think the following reasons and attitudes explain why.

Coal miners are a small back-country, working-class group. As such, they lack clout in Washington, especially in the administration. They are viewed more often as a necessary nuisance than as a constituency.

The industry and the country have traditionally underwritten cheap coal through cheap safety. More than 110,000 miners have been killed on the job since 1900 and at least 4 million have been injured.

Casualties are to be expected on any battlefield, and the "moral equivalent of war" is no different. This attitude is akin to that expressed by an official of the 1910 census who said, "The best interests of society will be served by permitting the least valuable members of the minning communities to be the victims."

Miners are segregated from the general population, as are their hurts. Nuclear power, on the other hand, democratizes risk by spreading it across class lines and by involving millions of people across the country (instead of only thousands in Applachia). Were miners conscripted from the general poplation, their safety would no longer be swept under the moldy rugs of federal bureaucracy. Montgomery County wouldn't stand for it.

Industry has argued for seven decades that most mine accidents are caused by miners themselves because they are ignorant, careless, untrained, accident-prone or foolhardy. By this logic, most mine accidents are inevitable since human nature can be changed. This argument is dusted off every few years to weaken efforts to establish better workplace and equipment standards. It persists despite credible research to the contrary. Miners are said to be different from the rest of us, more accustomed to - and deserving of - their troubles. During their 3 1/2-month-long strike in 1977-1978, Newsweek barefacedly called them a "breed apart": "clannish and fatalistic, wary and independent, hell-raising and violent, promiscuous and enduring." Such alien folk have these attitudes - so appropriate to their work - bred into them, were Newsweek to be believed. The bottom line

Federal officials and industry will deny that miners are expected to subsidize future electricity. But it doesn't take long to wade through the perfunctory statements about "the health and safety of American coal miners is our highest priority" to get to the bottom line: Miners themselves - and greater protection of their health and safety - are "constraints" on coal production. The natural inclination of energy to minimize constraints.

Without a clear national commitment has not been made. The president's first energy plan of 103 pages failed to include even one simple declarative sentence about better health and safety. His second message followed suit. The President's Commission on Coal, set up a year ago to come up with some ideas about "stabilizing" the mine labor force, began to think about improving mine workers' safety only four weeks ago.

Policy priorities are reflected in program budgets. The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) has 2 percent more money in its fiscal 1980 coal mine safety budget ($82.77 million) than in fiscal 1979 (which was 4 percent more than in fiscal 1978). In contrast, Republican administrations, no less, increased MSHA's safety budget 19 percent in fiscal 19766, 15 percent fiscal 1978. When inflation is considered, mine safety is not even holding its own in this administration.

When the president outlined his energy agenda on April 5. he told the heads of three "major federal agencies with responsibilities for regulating the activities of the coal industry to report back to him within 60 days on how coal production, development and use can be increased." Two departments, Energy and Interior, and the Environmental Protection Agency were included; MSHA, the health and safety regulatory agency in the Labor Department, was kept out of the game.

Some observers argue that excluding Labor from these deliberations signals that no compromise in concurrent safety efforts will be permitted. Some observers also argue that the world is flat. Programs to increase production will inevitably affect safety and health because the two often are the ends of a single seesaw: When one goes up, the other goes down. But the real point to be a made is that leaving safety policy well enough alone is not good enough.