On a hillside of alder, poplar and fir, workmen in muddy boots swarm over two nuclear power plants called "WHOOPS" by both pro- and anti-nuclear forces in this state. Their towers, reinforcing rods, cranes and concrete form part of the most expensive, and now most debt-ridden, construction project in the United States.

If help does not come soon, the scenic spot may also become a symbolic burial ground for the American nuclear industry, killed not by the safety fears triggered by Three Mile Island but the financial catastrophe of the Washington Public Power Supply System (WPPSS), pronounced "whoops." As the former U.S. Energy Department official brought here to save the day said recently, "If we cannot make it here, nuclear may very well not make it in this country."

Estimated to cost $6.5 billion at conception, the cost of the two enormous nuclear plants and three companion reactors in Hanford, Wash., has ballooned to $23.8 billion, a nearly 300 percent cost overrun and double the annual budget of the Energy Department. Much of this debt is backed by U.S. taxpayers.

The cost of the plants construction, with completion still three to five years away, will at least triple electric bills in 10 years and push the assumed debt of some utilities to 70 or 80 percent of the value of all property in their areas.

For years people here have confessed to being drunk with power. The early construction of hugh hydroelectric dams like the Grand Coulee under President Franklin Roosevelt tapped so much cheap electricity that all-electric homes became standard. Electricity-consuming aluminum factories were invited to line up along the Columbia River when no other customers for all the surplus energy could be found.

In a bustling underdeveloped area with an apparently limitless future, rural power executives decided to follow up the hydroelectric boom with an even larger nuclear construction project. In the 10 years since, the high cost of borrowing money and the mistakes of WPPSS managers inexperienced in the handling of megabucks have begun to unravel the optimistic plans, leaving the power-drunk Northwest with an aching hangover.

The top WPPSS management has been overhauled, Wall Street investors have warned of declining confidence in the agency's bonds and Washington voters are threatening to approve an initiative which would allow them to stop the project cold.

The WPPSS public image has not been helped by reports of recurrent construction flaws, designers barely staying ahead of workers and one wall being put up and torn down five times. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission levied $61,000 in fines on reactor No. 2, the first plant due to be completed, because of shoddy workmanship and poor quality control. The complaints included welding defects on the reactor's 65-foot high radiation shield.

The 88 utilities that would draw power from the five nuclear plants, each capable of fueling a city of a half million, continue to push the construction. New WPPSS managing director Robert Ferguson, brought in a year ago from the Department of Energy to rescue the projects, is trying to tighten controls on contract overruns and cut costs in order to save the agency's public image and its borrowing power.

A month ago Ferguson persuaded the board of directors of his state agency to order a one-year slowdown on construction of reactor No. 5 here, west of Olympia, and No. 4 in Hanford, which is in remote southeast Washington. Washington Gov. John Spellman and Oregon Gov. Victor Atiyeh have appointed a three-man panel -- United Airlines chairman Edward E. Carlson, lumber magnate George Weyerhaeuser and Oregon banker John Elorriaga -- to determine the consequences of continuing or abandoning the five nuclear plants.

Anna Gyorgy, director of the Critical Mass Energy Project, a Ralph Nader affiliate, said 69 nuclear construction projects in the United States were delayed and 16 orders for plants were cancelled in 1980. Most of them were victims of highinterest rates and declining energy use.

The costs of WHOOPS, however, are so much higher than projected, and the reactors so much more expensive than other plants, that their shadow hangs over every nuclear project in the country. If these plants wind up being abandoned at enormous cost, they may be the last to be built, according to some energy officials.

Douglas Bauer, senior vice president for economics and finance of the Edison Electric Institute, said the shutting down of a major nuclear construction site like those in Washington would put "a cloud over the technology." Once built and operating, nuclear plants cost less to operate than oil-fired plants, he said, but localities may shy away from building them if they feel voters and customers will not accept the initial high construction cost and debt.

Clare Miles, a spokesman for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Agency, says 72 nuclear power plants are operational in the United States (although a few are shut down or on low power). None is as large as the two plants here, each built to provide about 1,240 megawatts. Two plants in Hanford are about the same size and one is slightly smaller. Miles said that besides the five WPPSS plants, 75 others are under construction and 11 more have been ordered.

Even after recent electrical rate increases brought on by the pressures of the mounting nuclear plant debt, electricity here remains cheap. Washington state consumers pay about 1 1/2 cents per kilowatt hour, while consumers in the Washington, D.C., area pay more than three times as much. But Washington state residents use a great deal more electricity, about 16,000 kilowatt hours a year ($224.00) on the average compared to only about 6,500 kilowatt hours ($370) in the District of Columbia and about 10,000 kilowatt hours ($565) in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs. The national average is about 9,000 kilowatt hours.

The enormous cost and debt load of the five nuclear plants would triple electric bills here, according to WPPSS consultant Jim Seagraves. This would mean Northwest residents would finally be paying the same rate as electricity users elsewhere. "But that's not a justification for the increases," said Steve Zempke, chairman of a group called "Don't Bankrupt Washington."

Zempke's group has collected 186,000 signatures, far more than the 138,000 needed to place an initiative on the November ballot which would require voter approval for WPPSS budgets. Some WPPSS officials say they expect public anger over cost overruns to guarantee passage of the initiative.

Many conservation groups are arguing that the No. 4 and No. 5 reactors are not necessary. Conservation measures, particularly in the aluminum industry, could save more than enough power to meet future demand, they say.

A vote against a WPPSS budget could kill the nuclear projects. A recent report by Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner and Smith recommends that reactors No. 1, 2 and 3 be dropped a notch in bond rating; more political blows could further reduce their attraction to investors.

Wppss would like to rescue the situation with a lending guarantee for reactors No. 4 and 5 from the federal Bonneville Power Administration, which would market the plants' electricity. Some critics, however, have already chided the federal agency for backing borrowing for the first three plants, and Merrill Lyncy recommended against further guarantees. f

Here in Satsop and in much of the rest of Grace Harbor County, the plants remain popular. Rural Washington needs more power and employment opportunities are uncertain. WPPSS employs about 5,200 people here 2,000 of them from the local area. The nuclear plants provide a source of income and excitement at a time when the only other big event is the second annual championship slug races in nearby Elma. WPPSS has paid more than $4 million in grants to local communities for school, police and other expenses.

WPPSS officials argue that finishing the plants may be less costly than stopping them. What Wppss media coordinator Michele Y. Saranovich calls the "drop the wrench and walk away" option would cost an estimated $500 million in contract obligations that must be paid. The complications of financing money already spent on the plants could keep loan payments high for the next several years, even with the project abandoned.

Nuclear opponents like Gyorgy of Critical Mass say it would be cheaper to quit now, before the plants acquire fissionable material and begin to operate. Estimates of the total cost, she said, ignore the cost of chopping up and burying, or covering with concrete, the plant's radioactive walls and equipment once its useful life is over in 20 or 30 years.

Fear of nuclear health hazards seems far from the center of the debate here. "People care about the money," said an Elma waitress.

Critics concede that in the fight for the against the plants -- on Wall Street, in Congress and in the state -- dollars and not neutrons will be the primary target.