The nation may have to shut down some of its nuclear power plants in the next three years unless Congress allows the federal government to establish a storage facility for burned-out atomic fuel.

That was the message carried yesterday by the Carter administration to the Senate Government Operations subcommittee on energy, proliferation and federal services, one day after the president told Congress of his plan to store spent nuclear fuel and bury radioactive waste.

"No utility in the next year will be forced to shut down because of a shortage of fuel storage," William Dircks, acting executive director of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, testified, "but by 1983, things could be different when there is a real need for a storage pool."

The Carter adminstration is asking Congress for $300 million in fiscal 1981 to develop, design and open a storage facility where spent nuclear fuel can be kept during the moratorium President Carter has declared on nuclear reprocessing and the extraction of plutonium in the United States. o

While nuclear reprocessing is prohibited, spent nuclear fuel is piling up rapidly in "swimming pools" alongside civilian nuclear power plants. Adminstration officials said yesterday that most of the 70 operating plants in the United States have either expanded their storage pools to the limit or are seeking permission to do so.

"We're even had one or two cases," Dircks said, "where utilities are moving spent fuel from one location to another."

The NRC said that three electric companies had asked for permission to transfer fuel to ease storage shortages. Two asked to move spent fuel from South Carolina to North Carolina and a third has asked to transfer spent fuel between reactor sites in Illinois.

NRC records show that one nuclear power plant in Alabama and another in South Carolina will have exhausted their storage capacities this year. The same records who that plants in Illinois, Michigan and Georgia will exhaust their storage pools in 1981, plants in Florida and New Jersey in 1982 and two plants in Illinois and another in California by 1983.

Most of these plants have asked the NRC for permission to expand their storage pools or "re-rack" them, as it's called in the nuclear industry. But once the same pool is re-racked, it cannot be expanded again because the spent fuel bundles would be stored too close together.

Spent fuel is highly radioactive, containing isotops like cesium-137 and strontium-90, which stay radioactive for hundreds of years. They're kept in storage pools because they also contain plutonium and other valuable isotopes that could be retrieved someday.

The total budget request by the Carter adminstration for radioactive waste control is $719 million, according to Dr. George Cunningham, assistant secretary of the Department of Energy. This includes military and civilian waste disposal projects and a project to clean up uranium tailings around old and abandoned mills.

Much of the hearing was taken up in debate between Carter administration officials and Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio) and Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) over how the states should be involved in the selection of a permanent burial dump for nuclear waste.

"What if all the states say, 'No, we don't want it'?" Glenn said of the plan to set up a permanent burial ground. "Do we say, 'No more fuel, no more nuclear bombs.'? It seems to me that will be one horrendous political problem. We need to know now the states react to this."