The huge, gray cooling towers of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant loom over the well-clipped lawns of this tiny community like something from outer space.

For most of the last decade, they've been regarded as a mysterious blessing, an economic who live along the rolling banks of the Susquehanna River.

But today some people are beginning to ask themselves if the blessing has turned to a curse in the wake of one of the nation's most serious nuclear power accidents.

"I don't like it. I don't like it at all," said the elderly lady behind the counter at the Village Store in Falmouth who did not wish to be named. "It's almost enough to make me want to sell out and move."

Few people were that outspoken. When the incident occurred, officials determined that there was no immediate danger to nearby residents and none were evacuated. The immediate reaction among most people was one of quiet caution. One woman said she decided not to hang her laundry outside. One old man put off plowing his garden for a week. And the Londonderry Elementary School didn't let children go out for recess all day.

But there was little real fear as a team of state police helicopters hovered over the area checking for radiation levels. "I'm more afraid of that highway out there, and the crime that goes on around here than that plant across the river," said Mrs. James Engle.

"I don't worry about it," said Rita Connor, who lives a half mile away. "You see these lights burning in this house? As long as I want to keep them burning there have to be plants like this someplace."

If you are going to go, you're going to go. Life is one big gamble," said Monica Drayer, of Royalton Township. "That plant's as safe as anything else. I really don't think the government would let them do anything to endanger our health."

The only outrage expressed here today was over the failure of plant officials to notify nearly residents of danger-which the officals maintained was confined to the plant site. Lt. Gov. William Scranton III called a press conference to demand an investigation into an apparent three-hour delay between the time of the incident and when state civil defense authorities were notified of it.

Mayor Robert Reed, of nearby Middletown, complained he hadn't heard about the accident, which occurred at 4 a.m., until 8:15 a.m. "We have 11,000 people living right in the shadow of those cooling towers and we're concerned about," he said. Local officials "have their own Geiger counters and they are out there trying to figure out if there's trouble."

The $1 billion reactor plant is built on a small island, about 10 miles southeast of Harrisburg.

Most nearby residents had only sketchy details of what happened at the plant today, except to know that a "general emergency" had been declared on the site after some problems had occurred in the reactor's cooling system, and that a slight amount of radioactive material had leaked into the air.

But residents did know that a circus atmosphere had descended on their borough. One man boasted that he'd been interviewed by five different local television stations, one network crew, Newsweek magazine, and the New York Daily News.

Rita Connor, who lives on a hill overlooking the plant, spent the early afternoon assuring her mother and sister in New York City by phone that "we haven't been blown to bits." Her son, Mike, age 10, tried to persuade her to let him set up a stand to sell cola and hotdogs to passersby. She refused.

Many people were reluctant to talk about the plant because they have close friends or relatives working there. Others asked that their names not be printed.

"I have mixed emotions about the plant," Holly Garnish said in her comfortable ranch house directly across the river from the plant. "I'm angry when something happens like today, but I've learned to live with it."

"Really, it was very depressed around this area until they started building Three Mile Island," she said. "It's meant so many jobs for so many people that I can't help but think that it's been good for the area."

As she spoke, a pretty woman in a stylish trenchcoat walked in the door. She was obviously unnerved. She said her husband had worked at the plant for 10 years, but she had never paid much attention to what the doomsdayers had to say about nuclear power.

"I always hated to think what might happen," she added hesitantly. "So I didn't."

Her husband, a welder, encouraged the attitude. The money was good- $18 or $20 an hour on overtime-and Metropolitan Edison, the company that runs the plant, seemed to know what it was doing, he would tell her. He would add jokingly, "I've already lost all my hair and I'm sterile (he has had a vasectomy). What else can they do to me?"

But today the woman was worried. "There was some trouble at the plant," her husband had told her when he returned home from work at 7 a.m. today. He then fell asleep. Later, she heard what had happened during his shift.

Now the woman, like so many other people here, said she was going to have to do some real soul-searching. "Now that it is down to the real nitty gritty I want to know more about what goes on in there," she said.

But first, she said, her husband had invited her to go to a movie tonight-"The China Syndrome."