Nick Cain has been growing apples for 32 years in a blossom-scented valley south of here in the shadow of the North Cascades. Each spring he takes out a loan to be repaid come fall when the apples are boxed. The paperwork is the sort of formality big men in small towns suffer lightly. Cain had harvested a reputation long before his tenure as president of the Washington Public Power Supply System. He was the founder of a juice company, a trustee of the Malott Methodist Church and an officer of the Okanogan Fly Fishing Club. Most mornings he could be found at the Cariboo Inn, drinking coffee with the boys.

Applying for his loan this year, Cain had to pause.

Are there any lawsuits for or against you?

He wondered would only 21 sound better than just 21?

What for?

Facts were facts: Securities fraud.

How much money is involved?

The hazard of public life! Cain scribbled in the amount, trying to imagine the reaction down at the bank: Seven billion dollars.

In the thrall of the atom, the Washington Public Power Supply System aspired to one of the most ambitious nuclear empires in the nation. Having never built a nuclear plant, the consortium of utilities known as Whoops tried to construct five all at once. It let contracts, cleared forests, cut roads, hired armies of craftsmen and printed more than $8 billion in tax-exempt bonds, more municipal bonds than any private or public corporation in American history.

Of the five reactors, Whoops finished one. Two were mothballed. Two others known as Projects 4 and 5 were abandoned, and last year Whoops defaulted on $2.25 billion in bonds held by 78,000 people from all parts of the country.

In Whoops the story of nuclear power is written on an almost legendary scale. From conception to collapse, everything about it was colossal. Whoops was premised on exorbitant predictions of growth and a misplaced faith in the economies of scale. During its rise in the late 1970s the costs rocketed upward at an average rate of half a million dollars an hour. After its fall it became the focus of more than 60 lawsuits, including the nation's largest securities fraud case. For that suit alone more than 140 million documents have been produced.

To many Whoops marks a massive breach of responsibility that has tarnished both the Northwest and the nation's financial community. History's largest municipal bond default points up the lessons of New York City's money crisis in 1975, and raises once more the question of Wall Street's duty to scrutinize the product it sells. Were major underwriters not so reluctant to investigate their clients, they might have paid more attention to the signs of impending political and economic trouble.

Big institutions with multimillion-dollar positions got burned by Whoops. So did affluent bondholders like the Minnesota Vikings Football Club, sacked for a $200,000 loss, and Peanuts cartoonist Charles M. Schultz, who had a $75,000 security blanket of Whoops bonds. But most of those who suffered were not so well-to-do. Thousands of nurses, teachers, veterans and retired couples who depended on the income saw the value of their modest holdings all but destroyed.

Even the musical comedy name -- Whoops -- seems larger than life, something dreamed up by a puckish showman to encapsulate the history of an epic pratfall. Sportswriters and account executives use the name as a synonym for fiasco. Cartoon galleries equate it with the Hindenburg, Frankenstein and the Titanic. The judge hearing most of the legal cases has banned the word Whoops from his courtroom in favor of the less prejudicial "Supply System." Down the Road to Eden

It seems fantastic now, the hope that was held out for nuclear power when President Dwight D. Eisenhower proclaimed Atoms for Peace in 1953. Few technologies have ever been attended by so much promise only to be humbled so swiftly. After the bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki had demonstrated the darker power of nuclear physics, the country set out to find the "sunny side" of the atom. It was a mission with a moral impetus, as if nothing less than a paradise wrought by the same force could redeem the hell visited upon those cities. The early champions of the peaceful atom dreamed about an Eden where electricity would be, in that priceless phrase of physicist Lewis Strauss, "too cheap to meter." Breaking ground for the first atomic plant at Shippingport, Pa. in 1954, Eisenhower waved a radioactive magic wand and showed the country to a new frontier.

A generation later the nation reels from that adventure. More than an eighth of the country's electricity is produced by atoms; the amount may rise to as much as a fifth. But in the last dozen years 113 nuclear plants have been cancelled at a cost of more than $18 billion. No new reactors have been ordered since 1978. The decline in electric consumption since the 1973 oil embargo also has forced the cancellation of 67 coal plants, but this year the nuclear industry captured the spotlight with a series of spectacular setbacks. In a trend that began with Whoops, utilities quit largely completed projects in Indiana, Ohio, Michigan and Tennessee. Utilities once crowed about their nuclear plants in annual reports. Now some stress their fortune to be without them.

"Without significant changes in the technology, management and level of public acceptance, nuclear power in the United States is unlikely to be expanded in this century beyond the reactors already under construction," notes the congressional Office of Technology Assessment. The cover of that report, Nuclear Power in an Age of Uncertainty, shows a Whoops plant rising in a place once dubbed Atomsville USA where the ironies in the decline of nuclear power are sharper because doubts about its merit have never been entertained.

From the start the stakes were higher for Whoops. Populated by a blend of energy romantics and meliorists, the Pacific Northwest was given to atoms from the early days. A year and a half before he worked himself onto an operating table for quadruple bypass heart surgery, Whoops' managing director, Robert L. Ferguson, declared: "The nuclear and utility community of the entire nation is looking to the Supply System and its board to successfully complete this major commitment to nuclear energy. For if we cannot do it here, nuclear power may very well not make it in this country."

Today, a sense of waste pervades the deserted reactor sites. Project 5 molders in a Douglas fir forest on the rainy side of the mountains. Project 4 bleaches in the desert sun 200 miles to the east, surrounded by tumbleweed. Where workday sirens once split the air, only rock doves flex their wings. Jack rabbits scurry among piles of rusty steel. This spring a salvage company carved up one of the reactor domes for scrap. The bond default will not be as easily dispatched, for with interest, it totals more than $7 billion. Rancor and disillusionment are widespread; careers in ruin. People had a vision of a nuclear world, a faith in the atom matched by a sense of mission. Somewhere along the way the road to Eden went awry. Men and Women of Vision, or Fools?

A protracted struggle over energy reveals a society's philosophy and values. The word favored in the Northwest is vision. A Whoops official named H.R. Kosmata addressed the supply system's annual meeting in 1979, the year the wheels were wobbling badly on the nuclear wagon and soon to come off altogether. "In your quiet private moments, or when you're under fire in your service areas, you must wonder if we made the right choice," said Kosmata. "Were we men and women of vision, or fools?"

Events would seem to make no bones about the answer. Thanks mainly to Whoops, Northwest electric rates increased more than 500 percent in five years. Whoops plants roused a public lulled by more than three decades of the cheapest power in the nation and made conservation a new creed. Northwest power is still a bargain, but few people leave their lights burning all day, or clamor for all-electric, gold medallion homes, or expect the future will be as the past has been. The world has shifted. Many old-line utility commissioners caught in the sea change have quit or been voted from office. Until Whoops, they had never been under fire -- in their service areas or anywhere else.

To appreciate the rise and fall of Whoops, and its broadest meaning, one must first gather the history of a four-state, 275,000-square-mile region known as the West's West. Nearly eight million New York City residents get their electricity from one private utility. The eight and a half million residents of the Northwest are served by a mosaic of 126 public and private utilities.

The political structure of Whoops was similarly diffuse. Construction proceeded with three designs, three architect/engineers and over 400 contractors. Three of the plants were backed by the federal Bonneville Power Administration, the region's electric wholesaler that markets half and transmits 80 percent of the region's power. Projects 4 and 5 were backed by 88 utilities at a time when nuclear cancellations were overtaking starts. Down the road lay a period of wicked inflation: the deepest economic decline since the Depression; a near-meltdown at Three Mile Island that changed the way nuclear plants were regulated; bid-rigging, strikes, overruns, shortages, mudslides and volcanic eruptions.

The case against Whoops devolves mainly onto those who ran it. Management problems may have been exemplified best in the travels of a metal support known as pipe hanger #1847 located outside the Project 2 control room. Over a period of years, it was put up and torn down 17 times before revised designs eliminated it once and for all. Whoops had little incentive to hold down costs. The projects were funded with a giant credit card, and the sponsoring utilities bore the ultimate liability. Many of them had only a take-it-or-leave-it, "Book of the Month Club" control over Whoops, as one lawyer put it.

The Whoops board has been depicted as a well-meaning but overmatched band of sheep ranchers, muffler-shop owners and apple farmers -- men like Nick Cain, who were captives of its staff and contractors. But even the sophisticated members from big utilities seemed to develop a cavalier attitude about money. They took time instead to debate the shape of the boardroom table. Under siege, their pride and belief in their mission turned to hubris. Roll On Columbia, Roll On

In Eugene O'Neill's play "Dynamo," a romantic young fellow worships an electric generator as the mother of creation. "It all comes down to electricity in the end!" he cries. He embraces the dynamo, which reciprocates by electrocuting him. Not one of O'Neill's better efforts, perhaps the play may best be read as a caution against getting overly emotional about utility issues. But there is one place in the country -- the Pacific Northwest -- where everything does come down to electricity, where electric power has an almost religious significance and the people know what O'Neill meant by "the hymn of electricity."

The hymn can be heard in the Columbia River as it thunders through the turbines of the world's most powerful hydroelectric system. The Columbia is the economic aorta of the Northwest. It runs for 1,242 miles in deep canyons and broad bends, its headwaters in the Canadian Rockies, its mouth at the Pacific near Astoria, Ore. One of the river's early explorers was the eponymous Capt. Benjamin Bonneville, who impressed the Indians with his bald head and plaid overcoat. But it was Woody Guthrie who put the river's music to words. During a month-long songwriting stint at Bonneville in 1941, he batted out a tune a day on a guitar that said "This Machine Kills Fascists." The ballad "Roll on Columbia" became the energy anthem of the Northwest, and today it is sung in elementary schools and at utility picnics: "Roll on, Columbia, roll on! Your power is turning our darkness to dawn, so roll on, Columbia, roll on!"

Of the river's dams, none turns more darkness to dawn than Grand Coulee, the muscular monument revered here as what Guthrie called "the mightiest thing ever made by man." Grand Coulee impounds the Columbia for 151 miles. Its 21 turbine generators spin like bewitched merry-go-rounds. Transformers crackle as 500,000 volts of electricity gallop into cables slung from tower to tower in long silver arcs. The towers stand like hierarchical figures on the horizon, relaying energy over plains and mountains to manufacture aluminum in Wenatchee, to power aircraft wind tunnels in Seattle factories, to push water through sprinkler pipes crouching over the fields in Ephrata. The old Bonneville motto was Power for Progress. Power and progress were one and the same.

The people who built Grand Coulee triumphed over more than 20 years of opposition. Rufus Woods, publisher of the Wenatchee Daily World and a tireless advocate of the dam, once declaimed in a speech: "Could you come back here a thousand years hence, or could your spirit hover around this place ten thousand years hence, you would hear the sojourners talking as they behold this 'slab of concrete,' and you would hear them say, 'Here in 1942, indeed there once lived a great people.' "

Whoops' nuclear empire was meant to be a rendezvous with the spirit of Grand Coulee. Conversations about the struggle to build five nuclear plants unfailingly hark back to that slab of concrete and the "vision" of that legendary generation. To Hell and Back for Water

The Cascade mountains divide Washington state into two landscapes and two cultures. The dense, high-masted forests of the western slope yield abruptly to the eastern half where the ground rolls out in a hot, stringent landscape of sagebrush and rattlesnakes. The geographic centerpiece of eastern Washington is the Columbia Basin. Western writer Owen Wister passed through in the late 19th century. "20 miles to water," read a sign he saw. Underneath someone had scrawled, "One mile to hell."

Nick Cain knows the lengths to which farmers would go to cultivate the basin, where the land is so thirsty that farmers would sometimes dig every blade of grass from the ground to eliminate the competition for water. Growing up in Wenatchee, Cain learned that nothing was more precious than water and power. His father used to set an alarm clock that he might rise every two hours and patrol the orchard to keep gophers from tunneling into his irrigation ditches. It takes two tons of water to produce the wheat in a one-pound loaf of bread, and before the hydroelectric development of the Columbia, the power to pump that water was prohibitively expensive. Grand Coulee began a process of transformation. It raised a storage lake, and provided the energy to boost water into a network of prehistoric coulees and man-made aqueducts.

Hell flowered.

More than a half-million acres in the Columbia Basin have been turned into some of the most productive land in the world. Satellite photographs show the distinctive, round alfalfa fields watered by pivoting sprinklers. From high in space, on infrared film, they appear as little discs too numerous to count.

"You're damn right!" said Nick Cain, whacking the countertop at the Cariboo Inn. A waitress stopped off with a pot of decaffeinated coffee. "People don't remember the dry years. They forget what it was like. When I came here there was nothing in Ephrata, nothing in Quincy, nothing in Moses Lake. Look at the farms there now. I think the people of this region are peppier than the rest of the country. That's the way it's always been. Every time I think I see the frontier spirit getting subjugated, I turn around and see a guy plant an orchard, or raise a herd of calves and drive them up into the mountains. This is the West."

At 62, a bluff, foursquare man-of-the-west with white combed-back hair and a dapper mustache, Cain has an emphatic personality that bids him to whack countertops and punctuate conversations with "You're damn right!" He is frank, good-humored, and loyal -- perhaps to a fault. One of his critics, former state senator King Lysen said: "Bob Ferguson could tell Nick Cain 3 and 3 was 20 and Cain would go to the electric chair for that."

Stanton H. Cain (as he signed board resolutions) joined the board of Whoops in 1976 as the representative of Okanogan County's Public Utility District No. 1. He had no idea what he was getting into. For two crucial years he served as chairman of the executive board that met every two weeks. He drew a minuscule stipend. "I was president of the largest construction firm in the world at $38.49 a day. It was probably the worst job in the Northwest," he recalled last spring with a laugh. In 1981 his compensation reached the $5,000 limit after 129 days. He worked 226. He put 52,000 miles on his blue Cadillac. His name appeared in Northwest newspapers 1,400 times.

The foresight and sacrifice of those who built Grand Coulee instilled in Cain a determination to do for others what had been done for him. He wanted to continue the cause of "public power." In the late 1930s seven out of 10 farms were without electricity in Washington state. Private utilities wouldn't serve outlying farms. Farmers rode on horseback to enroll people in public power districts. It wasn't hard to persuade farm wives scrubbing laundry by hand. They brought coffee and doughnuts to work crews stringing line, and many wept when they could switch on a light and enjoy what city folk took for granted.

"The people who built Grand Coulee provided power for me and my generation and took the drudgery out of life," said Cain. "Everybody thought the people who developed the Columbia Basin were loony. You drive through there today and there are schools and farms and houses. It's beautiful."

Cain's cup jumped as a demonstrative hand smacked the table.

"Why the hell would I, at $38.49 a day, work my ass off? I don't own Whoops. I don't get anything out of it. It has to be a labor of love, you're damn right! If you're going to have a future, you've got to have energy. Jesus, I'm a fly fisherman and I missed out on three or four good years of fish!"

To Cain, as to most people who linked the future to the abundant supply of electricity, the best chance seemed to lie with the fissile properties of uranium. Does This Thing Really Work?

The exigencies of wartime prepared the ground for the atom in Washington, "The Nuclear Progress State" as it was known on official letterhead. In 1943 farmers living near the town of Hanford along the Columbia River were evicted to make way for a top-secret atomic complex. The Hanford Engineering Works produced the plutonium that destroyed Nagasaki.

In 1957 the Washington Public Power Supply System was established just down the road in Richland. Pro-nuclear feeling is strong in Richland, and in the other communities of the Tri-Cities area where the engineers and technicians of the government-run Hanford Reservation make their homes. The helmets of the Richland High School football team, the Bombers, are emblazoned with mushroom clouds. The city celebrated its incorporation by setting off a mock nuclear warhead.

"We ought to have a sign at the entrance to Hanford that says 'Bring us your harassed and unwanted nuclear plants yearning to stand tall,' " said John Goldsbury, a past president of Whoops speaking to the crowd assembled for the supply system's annual meeting in 1980.

With three employes and a storefront office, Whoops began modestly enough, building a small hydroelectric dam at Packwood Lake in the foothills of Mount Rainier. In 1964, in concert with the Atomic Energy Commission, it installed two turbine generators to harness steam furnished by a new government reactor, and produced the first nuclear-generated power in the Northwest. For more than a decade the Hanford Generating Project stood taller than any reactor in the country.

President John F. Kennedy broke ground for the Hanford Generating Project on a broiling September afternoon 21 years ago, two months before he was assassinated. It was the first time the public was able to tour Hanford. The Tri-City Herald advised women against wearing high heels in the scrub country. Kennedy's green, U.S. Marine helicopter dusted the shirtsleeved, short-haired crowd. On the podium grandees sweated in dark suits. Fortunately for the president, who had been rubbing his sore right hand after being greeted by a Basin farmer with a bone-crushing grip, his "atomic wand" was smaller than the mace Eisenhower had cradled nine years earlier. Its tip contained a piece of uranium from the first test reactor at Hanford.

"Does this thing really work?" Kennedy asked, pointing the wand at the microphone. Loudspeakers chirred. The bucket of a large red crane thudded to ground. So the nation was reminded of "the role destiny has given the Northwest to play in the transition to the nuclear age," the Wenatchee Daily World said the next day. Three years later, when power from the joint project flowed onto the grid in April 1966, Washington's Sen. Henry M. Jackson stood on the floor of the Senate and declared, " . . . in many ways it is a turning point in the power history of the Northwest." Waiting for the Cycle to Come 'Round

In many ways it was, and when events came full circle less than 20 years later, they hit Nick Cain hard. He attended his first executive board meeting as ground was being broken on Project 4 in 1976. Cain heard managing director Robert L. Ferguson recommend a construction slowdown five years later, and then in January 1982, termination. As he reviewed his speech announcing the end, Cain's eyes behind his gold-framed glasses filled with tears.

He stayed on, a self-described fighter, and in the summer of 1982 ran for reelection to the Okanogan utility district. He was opposed by a 30-year-old manager of a vocational school who was a disciple of conservation and offered a clear, philosophical break from Cain. At the time, Cain's wife was doing genealogical research and had discovered her husband was a fifth cousin of General George Armstrong Custer. "I told her, 'Play this down; it's two months before the election,' " he recalled. Suddenly overtaken by giddiness after a long day thrashing over life's complexities, he arrived good-naturedly at a simple, comic conclusion: "Custer screwed up at Little Bighorn and I screwed up at Whoops!"

Cain lost the election but not the faith. Retiring in December 1982, he received a Hamilton watch and a framed picture of an executive board meeting. Today he proudly notes his Distinguished Service Award from the Northwest Public Power Association. He believes the bondholders should be paid, and he still nourishes hope that Projects 4 and 5 will one day be built. "I guess I'm one of the crazies," he said. "I think we're going to need the power."

Between trips to the Chewack River in search of trout and to Seattle to confer with lawyers, Cain scans the monthly reports on the Cascade snow pack. The storehouse of the region's water is visible as a white mantle glittering on blue mountains over the Okanogan valley. It is easy to see from the sidewalk outside the Cariboo Inn. Some season the snow pack will have dwindled and the cycle will come round. Cain is sure of it. Farmers have long memories. In 1916 the grain was so thick harvesters could rest their scythes on its tassel tops, like a knife on a scrub brush. The cycle came round. No one forgets the fire that burned in the peat bottom of Rat Lake where 30 feet of water had stood.

Cain knows the dams will not be always overflowing. Without water to shunt through turbines, where will the power come from to entice the orchards into blossom, push the wasteland back and fashion a future? What will those sojourners say beholding dead nuclear plants? How will dawn be wrested from darkness?

"Keep watching that snow pack!" Cain shouted as he climbed into his car. "When it gets low, I'll get rid of my lawyer and we'll build the plants!" CAPTION: Picture 1, A containment building dome at Project 4 on the Hanford Reservation cost the supply system $1.3 million, but later was sodl for scrap for $14,000. Picture 2, An irrigated field south of Quincy in the Columbia River Basin in central Washington state. Picture 3, Thru Five: The Grand Coulee Dam, above; in the foreground is the third and newest power plant in the complex. The shaft of an 820,000-horsepower turbine that connects to a 600,000-kilowatt generator. Picture 6, Stanton H. Cain. Picture 7, Construction of Project 4, on the Hanford Reservation in eastern Washington, was halted in June 1981 when only 20 percent complete and terminated half a year later. Picture 8, A nuclear reactor vessel, filled with nitrogen gas to stop corrosion, sits on the site of terminated Project 5, 66 miles from Seattle. By Ray Lustig -- The Washington Post; Map, Whoops, 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5. Brad Wye for The Washington Post