There are a lot of hungry dogs fighting over a few bones these days," says Klaws Barthelt, chairman of West Germany's Kraftwerk Union, the largest nuclear power station construction firm in this country and one of the largest in the world.

Though KWU still has about $11 billion worth of back orders on its books, and thus is not exactly among Germany's neediest cases, the firm has received no new domestic orders for three years. Without domestic orders, KWU official Joachim Hospe says, export orders also are hard to get because foreign customers want to buy proven systems.

The reason KWU has no new domestic orders is that West Germany's nuclear power program - the fifth largest in the world behind the United States, the Soviet Union, Japan and England - has come to a grinding halt because of a variety of legal, environmental, political and safety considerations.

The abrupt change of pace, in what was after the 1973-74 oil crisis a thriving multibillion dollar industry, reflects "a crazy, unpredictable situation," as one KWU official-describes it, in several European countries.

In Sweden last month, the government of Premier Thorbjorn Falldin fell on the same issue that brought it to power. Falldin's successful campaign in 1976 was based largely on vigorous opposition to nuclear power, including pledges not to start any more plants and even threats to shut off five already operating.

But attitudes have changed in Sweden and the premier's coalition partners now favor an increase in nuclear power to get away from foreign oil dependence. With no more compromises left the premier stepped down.

In Austria last week, voters decided by a tiny majority of 50.4 percent not to let the state-run utility company push the start button on the country's first nuclear power plant, which had been under development for eight years and was completed months ago at a cost of almost $600 million.

By most accounts, the Austrian reactor probably would be operating now were it not for a large political blunder by the usually adroit Chancellor Bruno Kreisky. Opinion polls earlier this year indicated majority support for the plant commissioning. The two main parties, Kreisky's ruling Socialists and the opposition Peoples Party, supported it. Yet Kreisky, perhaps sensing an easy political gain, insisted on putting it to a public referendum, something rare in Austria, and hung his political prestige on it.

The result was that the vote became a polarized political battle, which opponents of the plant at Zwentendorf, north of Vienna, used the opportunity of the plant to inform voters about the potential dangers of nuclear power. What happens now, nobody knows, except that the unused plant costs $80,000 a day to maintain.

KWU, which built the reactor, still has 600 workers there.

One reason Austria ultimately teetered before joining the nuclear power club - it is the only West European country with a program - is that, like West Germany, there is growing concern over where to store the radioactive nuclear waste. Also like West Germany, Austria is a federal republic with considerable autonomy in the individual states, and so far neither federal government has been able to find a state governor willing to run the political risk of having the waste buried in his home state.

In West Germany, the situation has produced a stalemate with stakes many times higher than in Austria because of the dimensions of Bonn's nuclear program, the enormous requirement for energy in this highly industrialized country and the sheer number of employes in the nuclear and related industries. KWY, which also builds conventional power plants, employs 17,500 workers and officials estimate about 700 companies in one way or another are involved in the nuclear plant and reactor field.

Chancellor Helmut Schmidt has said more than $13 billion in industrial investments in this field are held up around the country because of legal and environmental challenges, though Economic Minstry officials privately point out that not all of this is nuclear power. There have also been some local challenges to new coal plants.

On the other side, of course, is the risk that opponents of nuclear power see to the environment and, in the worst case, to the population.

Court decisions in two of Germany's 10 federal states last year ordered a halt to new nuclear power plant commissioning until a permanent and safe long-term solution was found to the waste disposal issue. Since then, work has stopped on three plants under construction at Brokdorf, Wyhl and Grohnde that called for investment of more than $2 billion.

The court orders have had a nationwide impact and that is why there are no new orders on KWU books. In effect, there is a de facto moratorium on starting new nuclear plants in Germany and unless the waste issue is solved, government and industry officials agree the economic effects could be severe.

The Germans have identified a burial site in the salt domes of Gorleben in the state of Lower Saxony, which is supposed to be geologically suitable for the waste storage. Building a complex there would have some local economic appeal since it would cost about $3 billion, making it the largest construction project undertaken in Germany.

The problem, however, is that environmental groups are especially active and powerful in Lower Saxony and the governor, Ernst Albrecht, is one of the most attractive young leaders of the Christian Democratic Party, the main conservative opposition party.

Nevertheless, the Bonn government and the opposition parties remain committed to the idea that Germany must have more nuclear energy development on a "cautious but steady basis" and have brought pressure on the state. Albrecht agreed in September to make a decision on developing the site by the middle of 1979, after further technical analysis and public debate.

Bonn's plan was to have plants producing 24,000 megawatts of nuclear power by 1985 that would supply about 10 percent of the country's energy consumption.A new round of plants in the next decade would eventually push nuclear power to 27 percent by the year 2000.

West Germany will not meet its 1985 goal. But officials see no immediate crisis, in part because the post-oil crisis economic slowdown and energy conservation efforts have reduced the rate at which energy consumption was forecast to grow.

West Germany now has 15 nuclear power plants in operation generating 8,660 megawatts. In a sign that Bonn officials view as hopeful, courts in another state this week approved a partial operating permit for a ninth plant near Karlsruhe which, if given final approval, would increase the total to 9,560 megawatts by next year. Eight other plants, under construction in states where no legal challenges have been made, also are scheduled to be ready by 1985. They would bring the total power to just over 18,000 megawatts.

That is still well below the plan but specialists say it would not be a severe problem. The crunch, they say, will come later if there are no new building permits soon because it takes 8-10 years to build a plant.

What has been saving Germany's nuclear industry from much more severe problems is the heavy flow of foreign orders. But now that, too, is in some danger and not only because the domestic orders are down.

Aside from Austria, KWU won contracts in Argentina, Spain, Switzerland, Holland and two potentially hugh projects in Brazil and Iran.

In Spain, however, the doubts about nuclear power that have fueled opposition groups in many countries are also appearing. While one KWU plant there is under construction, the second one is now in doubt as the Spanish government reconsiders its energy program, Bonn officials say.

In Iran, two KWU plants under construction are expected to be completed in 1981 and 1982 and the work paid for despite that country's domestic turmoil.

But the huge $5 billion project to build for more is now in serious doubt.

Even in Brazil, where West German exporters got their biggest sale for a network of reactors and reprocessing plants worth more than $5 billion in 1975, there are now the first signs of trouble.

Discussions are under way over allegations that plant security questions had not been sufficiently discussed beforehand. Nevertheless, the Brazilian government has reaffirmed its commitment to move ahead.