It would be wonderful, both for the public (who will need the clean energy source) and for the nuclear industry (which would welcome an opportunity to return to the power-plant marketplace) if there were a proven design for a new and safer reactor. Lawrence Lidsky {Outlook, Jan. 10} says there is. Unfortunately, this just isn't so.

The concept of inherent safety has been prominent in the nuclear debate. However, I have previously warned that if we had a reactor that we called inherently safe, and any accident or malfunction occurred, the public reaction would be disastrous, even if no one were hurt and the plant suffered no substantial damage. The nuclear industry does not need any more "Doublespeak Awards."

Adequate electric supply is far more important in terms of lives saved than any comparison between different reactor types or between coal and nuclear power -- or even arguments about the "greenhouse effect." The down-side risks of an energy shortage in our society are socially and politically unacceptable.

The light-water reactor was not chosen by decree, even for submarines. It emerged as the best of the competitors. But for the past three decades, the government has focused its research funds on the sodium-cooled reactor and the gas-cooled reactor.

Last year, when I was assistant secretary for nuclear energy at the Department of Energy, it was my view that DOE priorities should be, in order: 1) an advanced light-water reactor (about $20 million a year), supported at a level appropriate to match larger funding contributions by industry; 2) liquid-metal-cooled reactors, particularly the metal-fueled systems that have the most potential for the long term (about $80 million); and 3) gas-cooled reactors. But there simply isn't enough in the budget to support all three priorities properly.Industry is contributing several million dollars per year to the gas-cooled reactor, yet makes no claim that its design is ready for the marketplace. Because the federal R&D budget was not sufficient to support all three of the priorities, I recommended halting DOE support for the gas-cooled reactor, but Congress appropriated $17 million.

If the concept has enough merit to attract funding, fine. But it is not really necessary to contrive a case against a viable technology, as Mr. Lidsky has done, in order to justify research support for another. A. DAVID ROSSIN Los Altos Hills, Calif.