At a distant spot on the marshy meadows of the Elbe River in northern West Germany, set beside a lighthouse and grazing cows, are the beginnings of a 1.4 million kilowatt nuclear power plant that so far has generated nothing but controversy.

A specially dug moat, reinforced by a metal fence crowned with barbed wire, encircles the 75-acre area near the one-pub village of Brokdorf where Chancellor Helmut Schmidt -- along with the pro-growth forces of West German business and industry -- would like to see the $1.25 billion project completed.

But the moat and fence testify to the fierce tempers and violent protest the atomic plant has drawn.

In the midst of a recession that can be traced in large part to the sharply higher price of oil imports, opposition to nuclear power here might have have been expected to diminish. Yet in a decision that piled political embarrassment for Schmidt on top of deep frustration for Bonn's energy program, the Hamburg city senate decided this week to postpone construction of the project for another three years.

While the Hamburg action may eventually be circumvented by alternative financial or political means, it represents a sharp rebuff to the Bonn government's hopes of reducing dependency on imported energy through the limited building of nuclear power plants.

The increased cost of OPEC oil has contributed to Bonn's external payments deficit which, in turn, has weakened the deutschemark and prompted the central bank to keep interest rate relatively high to draw capital. But high interest rates have contributed to the slowing of an already weakened economy.

Despite the evident economic urgency of cutting oil imports, nuclear power continues to run into determined resistance from a politically sophisticated corps of environmental groups, bolstered by legions of farmers in the rural areas where a number of the new atomic projects are to be located.

Complicating the West Germany nuclear story is a complex licensing system involving a bureaucratic web of state and federal agencies whose rulings are challengeable in the courts.

West Germany has 14 nuclear power plants in operation, providing 3.6 percent of the country's primary energy needs. Another 10 are awaiting a construction permit; some have been waiting more than five years.

Aside from the billions of dollars already invested in the blocked plants, the West German nuclear industry is fearful of losing its international competitive edge -- not least of all to the neighboring French, who have pursued an ambitious atomic development program with relatively little interference.

The chief responsibility for inaction on nuclear energy rests with the Bonn governing coalition. The partner Social Democrats and Free Democrats both include influential antinuclear factions that have inhibited the government from setting atomic power as a clear priority.

Although Schmidt is known to favor strongly the development of atomic power, he was moved to moderate his personal position in last November's policy declaration setting forth his government's aims for the next four years.

He said then: "The federal government refuses to pursue the development of nuclear energy without ifs and buts. One cannot simply force nuclear energy down people's throats; its development necessitates a broad democratic consensus."

Nevertheless, it had been hoped by the leadership in Bonn that positive action on the Brokdorf plant would break the logjam. Instead, the project has become a bone of contention within Schmidt's Social Democratic Party, aggravating an already serious rift.

Brokdorf is accustomed to conflict. When construction on the project began in October 1976, demonstrators tried to occupy the site in what became one of the biggest and most violent antinuclear confrontations in the movement's experience. In February 1977, building activity was halted by an administrative court pending fulfillment of certain conditions -- among them, further provision for disposal of nuclear wastes.

With those conditions since fulfilled, the Hamburg senate reconsidered the project -- which is owned jointly by the city's electricity works and by Nordwestdeutsche Kraftwerke, a subsidiary of Veba, West Germany's largest company.

Mayor Hans Ulrich defied Schmidt, who is also from Hamburg and a member of the same party, by opposing development of the Brokdorf plant. Ulrich argued that his city, which already draws 30 percent of its energy from atomic plants, would become too dependent on nuclear power.

Faced by this show of rebel strength, the national party leadership mustered a week response this week. It reiterated the party's energy policy that placed energy-saving measures and greater use of coal above the development of atomic energy.

The Christian Democrats, who rule in the state of Schleswig-Holstein where the Brokdorf plant is to be built, have committed themselves to the project and may yet find a way of proceeding without Hamburg.

While seemingly paralyzed for the moment on the nuclear question, the Bonn government provides a stream of details on measures taken in recent years to curb oil consumption in other ways.West Germany is said to have been the first Western country to draft a coordinated energy program, in 1973. It was updated in 1977.

West Germany has adopted energy-saving incentives, boosted the use of coal -- the country's major domestic energy source -- in power stations and encouraged industry to produce fuel-saving vehicles. The percentage of West German energy consumption drawn from oil dropped from 55 percent in 1973 to 48 percent last year, although dependence on crude from the Middle East actually rose last year to 44 from 41 percent.