Legislation to tighten controls on nuclear power withstood a series of challenges yesterday in the Senate to give nuclear power's critics their first taste of victory in memory.

Three times the Senate refused by narrow margins to cripple a bill shutting down all nuclear power plants by June 1, 1980, in states that are without approved emergency response plans by then.

"We're very upset about it," said Fred Webber of the Edison Electric Institute. "It's a major step backward."

Peter Franchot of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a Massachusetts-based group critical of nuclear power, called the votes "a significant victory. The industry picked this as a significant issue and lost. We're very pleased . . . It means no more blank check for nuclear power."

The votes came on amendments and procedural motions to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's $373.3 million budget authorization for fiscal 1980. As approved by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, the measure would forbid the NRC to issue operating licenses to any new nuclear plant in a state without an emergency response plan approved by the NRC.

An amendment by Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.) attacked a separate provision that would shut down all operating plants in states with no plan by June 1, 1980. "It is simply unacceptable in a country that is energy-short to make the people pay the price for disagreement between two sets of bureaucrats," he said.

His proposal would have eliminated the shutdown penalty and required the NRC to set up an emergency plan instead for any state without one. "That way there will always be an acceptable plan and there will always be electricity," he said.

Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.), chairman of the energy subcommittee with jurisdiction over the NRC, borrowed the conservatives' favorite argument and said such a change would fundamentally shift state authority to the federal government. "The issue is whether a plant should continue to operate if there is no emergency plan," he said. "Either we learned something from Three Mile Island or we haven't."

Johnston's amendment failed, 37 to 40. Nuclear industry sources had earlier predicted 51 votes in favor and some attributed the defeat to the fact the vote came unexpectedly early in the day. However, attempts to revive the measure in another form failed in mid-afternoon on procedural motions, 40 to 41 and 39 to 43.

Hart called the votes "the first major reform resulting from the Three Mile Island accident." Republican leaders praised Hart's handling the issue in committee, where he agreed to some modifications that enabled Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.), ranking minority member of Hart's subcommittee, to join Hart in defending the measure on the Senate floor.

A Simpson-Hart amendment, for example, would require the NRC to allow some plants in a state to continue operating in the presence of an approved state emergency plan even if other plants in the state - in more populous areas, for instance - are not in compliance. At the moment, the NRC approves state plans on an all-or-nothing basis. The same agreement, reached before debate began yesterday, changed the deadline for compliance from six months after enactment to nine months.

The measure applies to 16 states that now have a total of 39 nuclear power plant reactors but no approved evacuation plans. It provides additional staff and funding for the NRC's office of state programs. Other measures beef up the NRC's inspection and enforcement staff, order the commission to develop plans for responnding to major accidents and to improve the training given to those who operate nuclear plants.

An amendment by Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio), to "fill in the gaps" in nuclear safety through interim action by the NRC in states without emergency plans, was passed on a voice vote. Debate on the bill continues today.