In the 1960s the Pacific Northwest's energy planners could see there would soon be a shortage of the cheap federal hydroelectric power that had underwritten the region's economic growth for three decades.

Oil and gas were not easily accessible, and solar power seemed a distant, exotic technology. So a decision was made to build nuclear plants.

The experts gave assurances that atomic power was a safe, clean, reasonably priced energy source well-suited to states with a strong tradition of environmental protection.

A decade later that dream of simple solutions through nuclear energy has faded. And the Northwest has come to typify the national debate over atomic power.

Nuclear energy has proved far more expensive and risky than had been foreseen. Utility bills are projected to rise 800 percent in some districts by 1990. And power is emerging as a divisive political issue.

But the Northwest, like the country as a whole, is locked into the course set in the late 1960s. The political establishment has concluded that there is, as yet, no other way to go if the region is to provide power for new skyscrapers, new industries and new residents attracted to the life in "ecotopia."

Yet this is a resolution that seems to please almost nobody.

Evnironmentalists are gearing up for a new attack on nuclear building programs.

Utility rates, which have remained constant or have declined in the last 40 years, will now rise sharply as nuclear costs are folded in.

The region's five partially completed atomic plants may cost as much or more than the Alaskan oil pipeline by the time they are finished. They are an average of 51 months behind schedule, and the bill for them has risen from an initial estimate of $6.6 billion to $11.75 billion.

One facility that is finished, the Trojan plant on the Columbia River in Oregon, was shut down for months this year after disclosures that the control room might be too weak to withstand an earthquake.

Running the huge construction program is the Washington Public Power Supply System, whose board is made up of elected representatives of local utility districts. Under this setup, a retired appliance salesman, a rural landowner and an electrical contractor find themselves charged with making hundred-million-dollar decisions that often hinge on the complex technology of the neclear age.

The vast WPPSS bureaucracy of 1,500 staffers (including a 15-member public realations department) has been criticized for sloppy management and other failures.

The General Accounting Office in Washington, D.C., reported in September that there was "room for substantial improvement" in WPPSS' management. One private consultant cited a "lack of effective checks and balances on WPPSS' operations."

Meanwhile officials of the Bonneville Power Administration, the agency that markets power from the federal dams, have accused WPPSS of withholding vital information on nuclear projects BPA is paying for. WPPSS officials insist they have been "open and above board."

All these hassles of the nuclear age flow from one inescapable reality: the squeeze on the region's energy resources.

Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana west of the continental divide now use an average of about 17,000 megawatts of energy at any given moment. BPA estimates this average load will reach more than 24,000 megawatts by 1990.

BPA predicts further that the region will have a power deficit that could reach a maximum of 2,835 megawatts in 1984, before the last three of the new nuclear plants are completed.

Some of the increased load can be met with power generated by coal plants in Wyoming and Montanta but most will come from the five nuclear facilities under construction and four on the drawing boards.

The question that has split public opinion in the Northwest as nuclear costs and hazards have increased is how many of these plants are necessary.

The Sierra Club, the Natural Resource Defense Council and regional antinuclear and environmental groups have attacked the building program as wasteful. They claim that energy conservation and solar power are a better way to go.

The NRDC maintains that the Northwest's energy planning assumes that people who pay utility bills "would rather spend vast amounts of money on energy generation than practice serious energy conservation -- an assumption which is both dubious and arrogantly presumptuous."

Seattle Mayor Charles Royer, who is pushing a plan to save 230 megawatts of energy by 1980 through changes in building codes and home insulation loans, has indirectly accused the pro-nuclear movement of trying to smear the conservationists.

"There is a feeling in some quarters that conservation is some kind of nogrowth nonsense out of the granola set, but I can't think of anything more defensible or more American than efficiency," he says.

Not everybody agrees that the region will need as much electrical power, or as many nuclear plants, as BPA says.

Earl Gjelde, BPA's assistant power manager, acknowledged in an interview that the anticipated 1990 power load could be reduced as much as 15 percent or 3,600 megawatts, through conservation. That is equal to the output of three nuclear generators.

The Pacific Northwest Utilities Conference Committee, made up of utility companies, the aluminum industry and BPA customers predicts that the electrical load will grow by 4.5 percent a year. But a 1977 NRDC study says this could be held to half of 1 percent through strong conservation.

Eric Redman, who represents the aluminum companies that consume one one fifth of the region's electricl power, scoffs at this. "Seattle already has 120 megawatts of downtown commercial need that was unanticipated in a major 1976 study," he says.

If any part of the country seems philosophically prepared to adopt conservation measures, it is environment-conscious Pacific Northwest. Conservation could be a particularly promising way of cutting the overall load, because low utility rates have promoted wasteful practices in the past.

However, nuclear power also has strong support.

People in the state of Washington have lived with nuclear installations since the 1940s, when the federal government established its Hanford Reservation there.

"In my judgment, these new plants are essential to our continuing to meet the requirements," says Aldo Benedetti, of the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission. "Otherwise we'll get to curtailment as well as conservation. Twelve years down the road the politicians who are fighting nuclear power won't be there to catch hell for not taking care of the needs of the people."

Ed Fischer, the 72-year-old appliance dealer who chairs the WPPSS executive committee, blames environmentalists and "(Ralph) Nader's Raider" for slowing down the contstructionof the five WPPSS plants.

"When I see who they are and what they look like -- why, they're on an ego trip," says Fischer of the anti-nuclear forces. "They take delight in grinding down anything that's progressive. Nogrowth activism is economic vandalism."

There have been an estimated 1,765 changes in federal nuclear construction standards since 1965. But these are only partly responsible for the delays and cost overruns referred to by Fischer.

WPPSS was formed in 1957 by 19 public utility districts and the citys of Seattle, Tacoma and Richland, Wash. Until the late 1960s, the main job of its employes was to run a small hydroelectric station and a steam plant.

But in the late 1960s, the Public Power Council, representing more than 100 utilities, commissioned WPPSS to start building nuclear plants. WPPSS became the construction arm of the region's public utility districts, most of which bought shares in the new nuclear facilities.

In the years that followed WPPSS came under increasing criticism for the rising costs of the projects. One expert claimed recently that the plants would be in the "top 10 percent" of the nation.

In the early stages, WPPSS was dealing with some of the largest engineering and construction companies in the nation -- Westinghouse, Babcock and Wilcox, Bethlehem Steel -- and had little nuclear expertise of its own.

The costs of a $1 million soild-erosion projects mushroomed to $15 million as rain washied away the sides of a mountian site where two of the plants were being built near Elma, 66 miles southwest of Seattle.

According to John Nuveen & Co., which analyzed the WPPSS bonds for investors, 40 percent of the overruns were attributable to "inflation and estimating and design refinements." (Strikes, new regulations and higher nuclear fuel costs accounted for most of the rest).

Fischer maintains that WPPSS now has the projects under firm control, saying, "We have the best troops in the world."

But the rising costs have heightened the region's nuclear jitters.

Eventually the costs of the new projects will be passed on to the public utility districts that have joined in the WPPSS building consortium. And these districts will pass on the costs to their customers in the form of higher utility rates.

As of Sept. 1, it was officially estimated that some districts are facing up to 800 percent increases in their bills by 1990, though the average rate hike will be less. For example, utility bills of customers of the Big Bend Electric Co-op are expected to go from $674 in 1978 to $5,347 in 1990 as rate-payes pick up that distict's share of the nuclear construction costs.

Proponents of the program counter that the plants will seem a bargain by the middle 1980s.

"Thank God that the supply system is already in the ground and that we'll get these plants," Fischer says.

But rising costs have also created an issue around the liability of the federal power agency in the region, Bonneville Power Administration.

Early in the 1970s, Congress authorized BPA to buy all the power from the first two WPPSS plants and 70 percent of the third to increase the federal power pool.

Capital to start building the plants is all being raised by bond issues, but BPA agreed to pay back the bonds and debt service -- even if the projects are never finished. Eventually, BPA is to return this money by charging its customers more for power.

BPA officials insist that U.S. taxpayers are not exposed to any liability, since BPA's own regional customers still would pay through higher rates if safety or structural problems were to close the facilities.

But the arrangement has been denounced by environmentalists and by some politicians.

Rep. Jim Weaver (D-Ore.) has introduced a bill that would prohibit such arrangements in the future.

"We argue that signing up the federal government to back bonds on plants that may never be finished is ludicrous," sayd Weaver.

The Treasury Department has also been critical, noting that WPPSS bonds already have tax-exempt status. BPA's promise to pay for the plants even if they are not built gives investors a stonger guarantee than for the Treasury's bonds, officials say.

What this amounts to, critics say, is a federal subsidy on interest rates for building nuclear plants -- a substantial incentive.

Yet BPA has often experienced difficulties in monitoring what WPPSS is doing. GAO's September report "doubted that Bonneville is adequately prepared to protect [BPA] consumes from cost overruns on large power plants."

BPA's Gjelde says that "the cooperation hasn't been there . . . there's been enough [overruns] to make you question what's happening." BPA Administrator Sterling Munro, a former aide of Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash.), has been attending WPPSS meetings in an effort to improve communications.

"It's a power struggle between a federal agency, BPA, and a regional one, WPPSS," said a Seattle attorney.

It is also the kind of family quarrel that can come when times get tough. If the fighting and friction continue, the regional harmony that has distinguished the Pacific Northwest from some other parts of the country could be one of the casualties.

"We have been a region surrounded on all sides by envy," said a local reporter. "But when a bunch of good ol' boys decide to go out and buy nuclear power plants, you know that times are going to change."