AFTER LEAVING the Nuclear Regulator Commission in the hands of lame-duck leadership for more than a year, the White House yesterday announced its choice of Albert Carnesale to be the next chairman of that beleaguered agency. Finding a qualified person willing to take on the task of trying to run the problem-ridden NRC was hard enough. Finding someone who should also be acceptable to both the nuclear industry and anti-nuclear organizations was nearly impossible. The White House seems, finally, to have done both.

What the NRC needs most right now is a strong chairman. The necassary -- though not sufficient -- qualification is technical competence. A man or woman who is entirely dependent on his or her staff for technical advice, who may not know enough to ask the right question and who cannot tell when he or she is being fed excuses or personal opinion in the guise of tecnical fact can never fill the bill. Mr. Carnesale, a nuclear engineer who is currently professor of public policy at Harvard and an associate director of its Center for Science and International Affairs, meets this test.

Unlike some of Mr. Carter's earlier appointments to the NRC, Carnesale also appears to reflect the president's own middle-of-the-road nuclear policy: that nuclear power is a necessary energy source for the foreseeable future, but only if it meets stringent safety and public health standards. Mr. Carnesale's commitment to nuclear non-proliferation is also clear. By all reports, he performed well as chairman of the U.S. delegation to the recently concluded International Nuclear Fuel Cycle Evaluation.

Senate confirmation of key appointments is always a question mark in the months before a presidential election. In this case, however, there is a good reason for Senate Republicans to let the public interest prevail over politics and to judge Mr. Carnesale on his own merits. The nuclear industry desperately needs more certainty and direction from the NRC in everything from the resolution of long-pending safety issues to the licensing of power plants. A move to delay this appointment until next year would mean eight or more months of continuing uncertainty at the NRC -- uncertainty that has already prevailed for the 15 months since the accident at Three Mile Island and that the nuclear industry and its customers cannot afford.

Despite its tight summer schedule, the Senate should begin through hearings on the Carnesale appointment. Unless these turn up facts not now publicly available, the president's nomination appears to merit the Senate's prompt approval.