Dr. Robert L. Dupont, recipient of a Department of Energy grant to study whether people who oppose nuclear power suffer from an irrational phobia, says that he doesn't "know how anyone could criticize the study when it's not finished." Let us inform him. What makes this grant troubling -- deeply troubling -- is not its $85,000 price tag, though heaven knows we can think of better uses for scarce federal money. Nor is it implausible that, here and there among the populace, there are people who react to the sight of a cooling tower with the same revulsion that most of us reserve for scorpions and rattlesnakes. And more foolish hypotheses have surely been explored with the aid of a federal grant. But what is not dismissible or excusable is the mind-set that would prompt a federal agency to elevate to the level of scientific inquiry the notion that its opponents are the victims of a psychiatric disorder.

Don't misunderstand us. Despite the dangers involved in the generation of nuclear power and the disposal of nuclear waste products, we are convinced that nuclear power must play an important role in meeting global energy needs. Moreover, it is indisputable that much -- perhaps as much as half -- of the public harbors a distrust of nuclear power more profound than is strictly warranted by its past and likely future performance. But there is nothing pathological about the general public's fears.

Dr. Dupont finds it a "paradox" that more people fear nuclear plants than fear cigarette smoking. What is paradoxical about that? However wrong- headed and ultimately deleterious the decision to smoke, it is, at least, a choice that individuals can make in full knowledge of the consequences. The same cannot be said about past decisions concerning the location, construction and operation of nuclear plants.

No doubt the opponents of nuclear power have greatly exaggerated its dangers. But the nuclear industry -- and its friendly regulators -- have not needed enemies to raise perfectly rational concerns about the safety of nuclear power. Their own bungling has been quite sufficient for that purpose. If the industry and its administration supporters want to combat public fears about nuclear power, then they should start making sure that -- when demand for more electrical generating power revives, as it surely will -- no corners are cut in the construction of future plants or in the training of plant operators. They should not locate plants on top of earthquake faults.

In the meantime they might avail themselves of the many opportunities that a democracy provides for educating the public about the facts. That's one very nice thing about living in a democracy -- the government usually tries to persuade its opponents by rational discourse instead of referring them for psychiatric reprogramming.