If Virginia Electric and Power Company, the most heavily fined utility in the nation for nuclear safety violations, were in traffic court with its record, it would have its license suspended for recklessness, be sent to driver-education school, and be tested for competence before being reinstated.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has repeatedly cited Vepco for withholding information or providing misleading information, for weaknesses in its security system, for design and construction inadequacies at its Surry and North Anna nuclear plants, and for failing to follow required procedures for guarding workers against radiation.

Fines against the Virginia utility have been levied on five occasions since 1973, most recently a $15,000 penalty in August, for a not-so-grand total of $127,400. Only Consolidated Edison of New York, with seven fines totaling $105,000, is in the same league as a persistent offender of federal nuclear safety regulations.

When questioned about this dubious distinction, Vepco President Stanley Ragone claimed that "anti-nuclear forces and disgruntled employees have probably caused Surry to be inspected more than any other plant in the country. It's like an audit. The more you audit, the more you find."

That's rather like saying Virginia's auto inspectors find many safety violations because they inspect autos too often.

If it isn't the freatks and inspectors, it's the bureaucrats. In 1976 when the NRC fined Vepco $32,500 for making false statements about its North Anna plant, Ragone claims that a high NRC official "told me they had to start showing they were cracking down on people, and they needed an appropriation. That was the reason [that Vepco was punished]."

If such bureaucratic gamesmanship was a factor in penalizing the utility, it reveals something about the government's past permissiveness with nuclear power development rather than an unwarranted crackdown on Vepco.

Growing public concern about nuclear safety induced President Ford and Congress in 1974 to abolish the Atomic Energy Commission because it was both promoting and trying to regulate nuclear expansion. If the NRC felt compelled to show that it was putting safety first, it was only because the public and Congress thought a tough approach was overdue. Whether the NRC has in fact been strict enough is a question for the president's Three Mile Island Commission to consider.

Federal inspectors fault nuclear plants for all sorts of infractions, but only the most severe or repeated violations result in fines. Of the 48 public and privately owned utilities licenses to operate nuclear plants, only 18 have ever been fined. Either the other 30 have relatively clean records or the NRC is still not a tough cop.

But do utility fines have a useful effect? As a practical matter, such sums can be paid from a giant utility's petty cash fund. And in Vepco's case, company officials seem more intent on justifying infractions than promising safer practices.

If there is any way of scolding a utility into doing better, it is to force it to shut down an unsafe plant. Most of Vepco's reactors are currently shut down for modifications required by the NRC, causing the company to buy more expensive electricity from other sources. It has, of course, applied for stiff rate increases, so it is the consumers -- not management or the stockholders -- who get stuck with paying for its mistakes.

Instead of levying fines, the NRC might do better with a point system. Like moving violations by motorists, serious and repeated violations can be assumed to indicate careless, if not reckless, management that threatens public safety. Upon receiving a dozen points, the utility would have to shut down all its nuclear plants until it has persuaded the NRC that its management is trustworthy.

Moreover, any extra expenses incurred by such an order should be absorbed by the company and its stockholders, not passed onto ratepayers. If dividends are cut because management fails to obey safety rules, stockholders will have an incentive to insist on safe, not just profitable, management practices.

Utilities became used to being coddled by the AEC when nuclear plants were considered costly and experimental. Today Vepco justifies its tilt toward nuclear plants by saying they are less expensive than oil or coal plants to operate. That means that rising fossil-fuel costs gives the utilities greater incentive to keep their reactors on line.

But the mechanism for forcing the industry to observe public-safety rules is faulty. Modest fines for violations are easily paid, and expensive shutdowns for safety-inspired modifications are charged to rate-payers. A point system carrying the risk of loss of operating permits would strengthen the NRC's hand.

If that seems drastic, consider the alternatives. Better a shutdown than a meltdown.