The radiation issue drags on.

Last week, those of us on the health subcommittee of Sen. Edward Kennedy's Judiciary Committee held further hearings on the problem. Everyone is doing their best. Yet we have not yet satisfactorily resolved what I personally find the most distressing political question of my career.

I usually get up early. But at 5 a.m. on April 20, even my metabolism was unsure about the new day. It wasn't helped by technical difficulties with the feed to ABC's "Good Morning America" show in New York, which had us waiting on camera for 25 minutes in KTVX's Salt Lake City studio, grimly contemplating the subject of the upcoming interview - the increasing evidence that fallout from atomic weapons tests in Nevada in the 1950s has been responsible for abnormal rates of cancers and leukemia in southern Utah.

On the show with me was Elmer Pickett, a farmer from the small town of St. George, Utah. St. George has been hard hit. I had held a town meeting there three days earlier, and knew Pickett had lost nine members of his family to these diseases.

Yet when the program began and host Tom Schell finally turned to him, Pickett leaned forward and with great natural dignity emphasized that he still believed there was a need for the nuclear tests. Obviously, things had gone wrong. But he wanted it understood that he was not bitter against America, the greatest country in the world.

It is one thing to read, in the clinical language of the Atomic Energy Commission's Fallout Branch, that "if, for certain purposes, the RBE [Relative Biological Effectiveness] of alpha rays is taken to be 10, this implies that, for these processes, an alpha ray dose of one-tenth Rad will produce the same degree of biological effect as an X-ray dose of one Rad . . . Dose in "Rem"=Dose in Rad x RBE . . . "

It is another to see consecutive sections of your audience break down in tears as the terminal sufferings of their loved ones, who were in some cases exposed in one day to 12 times the millirems now considered permissible for a whole year, are recalled from the witness stand.

The issue is particularly agonizing for conservatives like myself. (In 1978, the quarterly magazine "Politics" ran a survey and awarded me the ambiguous accolade of being one of the five most conservative senators.) For years, we have advocated a strong national defense. We have instinctively tended to favor the tough-minded practical and economic case for nuclear power over the frequently emotional counterarguments. Now, the contentions of those we dismissed have apparently returned to haunt us, in peculiarly horrible form.

Even worse, we can see no easy escape from the nightmare. Our need for energy cannot be solved without nuclear power. The defense fears of the early 1950s, when weapons testing began, were very real. Contemporary scientific opinion was sincerely mistaken about the risk - and some risk is unavoidable, as it is in most human activity. The sort of bureaucratic coverup that seems to have continued under every administration since then, while appalling, cannot ultimately be eradicated without a change in the nature of men - or, at any rate, of civil servants.

I have proposed blanket compensation for victims of cancer in the affected area. This is admittedly a profligate, Great Society-type approach. It has been criticized, fairly, by those who point out that it is impossible to distinguish between radiation-caused cancers and ones that would have occurred anyway. I find myself on the left of permanent officials at HEW, a rare moment that is disorienting to all of us.

Even my press aide, the 1972 McGovern delegate of whom we are very proud - we keep him in a special glass display case, and he worries about the environment - has reservations. These, incidently, are shared surprisingly widely in Utah itself.

Yet how else can we treat a community of Elmer Picketts? For, despite all the publicity, southern Utahns have remained calm. They are not even making any concerted demand for help with their medical bills, asking only that a medical center specializing in cancer be established nearby. In an era when patriotism has been unfashionable, they still remember their country. In a society where importunity is institutionalized and rewarded, they have remained patient. Other nations need whips and scorpions to inspire this sort of social discipline.

Forget about the ideology and the agitated politicians. The forbearance of ordinary Americans in the face of all their government's vacillations and mistakes is on any reckoning an awe-inspiring phenomenon that truly distinguishes this country.

At the climax of "The Bridges at Toko-Ri," James Michener's powerful novel of the Korean War, when the Navy pilot hero is shot down and killed, in a war he questions, of which his countrymen are barely aware, his admiral asked rhetorically, "Why is America lucky enough to have such men? They leave this tiny ship and fly against the enemy. Then they must seek the ship, lost somewhere on the sea. And when they find it, they have to land upon its pitching deck. Where did we get such men?"

In the stoicism with which these men and women of southern Utah are facing the most profound personal tragedies, we see again the same ultimate political mystery. CAPTION: Picture, A 1957 atomic bomb test in Nevada.