Out of the nuclear empire that was to be Whoops, there is now just one atomic plant, known officially as Project 2. It staggered across the finish line in eastern Washington state last spring after 12 years and $3.2 billion.

Anything so pervasive in the lives of more than 8 1/2 million people certainly deserved a less prosaic name, so the publisher of a Whoops litigation newsletter held a contest. Suggestions flowed in: Spectacost II, Faulty Towers and, in memory of Whoops' four canceled or suspended sisters, E Pluribus Unum -- One From Many. The winner was Moby Deuce, a witty tribute to a nuclear leviathan.

In a way Whoops was an obsessed voyage, and three contest entries remembered the man who helped launch it: Hodel II, Hodel's Hurrah, Hodel's Folly -- all for U.S. Secretary of Energy Donald P. Hodel.

As they peer toward the year 2000, energy planners in America wonder which of two paths will lead to a plentiful supply of electricity. In the tradition of the "hard path," a U.S. Department of Energy study recommends a trillion-dollar investment for building the equivalent of 438 giant nuclear power plants.

Beckoning toward the "soft path," a report by the Congressional Research Service argues that power demand can be met largely by "least-cost" methods such as conservation.

The experience of the Pacific Northwest is an overture to this energy debate. The mid-1970s were a time of unprecedented economic growth in that corner of the country. The future was darkened by the prospect of huge power shortages. People had different ideas how to solve the crisis.

They defended their views with the kind of emotion that makes sense when energy is understood as an expression of deep political beliefs. Power was bound up in ideology.

Today the dispensation of power has been changed. The Northwest has struck a new course, with conservation the resource of first resort.

But the shift did not come cheaply. More money per capita was wasted on unneeded power plants there than anywhere in the country.

The multibillion-dollar lessons of Projects 4 and 5 were most expensive of all. Their shockproof buildings and useless cooling towers loom above the land in memory of a future that was prophesied but never came to pass.

An old forecasting saw warns that if you give a year, never give a number, and if you give a number, never give a year. In a regional version of the job he holds now, Hodel furnished numbers and years, and made them the basis of a crusade. The Duke of Kilowatts

Today he has some doubts about the wisdom of that program, but back then, more than a decade ago, when the world looked much different, he had none. At the time, Hodel was head of the Bonneville Power Administration, a federal agency set up to distribute hydroelectricity from the great dams of the New Deal. The BPA administrator is a leading light in Northwest power circles, a Duke of Kilowatts wielding broad authority to fix rates, back bonds and control the flow of juice to paper mills, aluminum plants, irrigation districts and more than 100 public and private utilities.

Portland-born, Harvard-educated Hodel, a lean, athletic man with deep-set eyes and brows as dark as a blacked-out town, took charge of Bonneville in 1972. He faced more than his share of hardships. BPA transmission towers were blown up by an extortionist, and Hodel's life was threatened. He sometimes left a pebble on the hood of his car to make sure no one had tampered with the engine. In a personal tragedy, his eldest son, Paul, took his own life.

During his tenure, Hodel became the chief promoter of a sweeping regional energy plan to build a fleet of nuclear and coal-fired power plants. He painted a grim picture of the economic consequences the region would suffer were the so-called Hydro-Thermal Power Program thwarted.

"Homes will be cold and dark or factories will close or both because the power deficits are no longer manageable," he warned, echoing a note of hysteria widespread at the time. In July 1975 he appeared at Oregon's most prestigious forum to deliver an address that soon became famous in the annals of Whoops, a call to arms entitled "The Prophets of Shortage."

At a luncheon at the Portland City Club, Hodel declared that the environmental movement "has fallen into the hands of a small arrogant faction which is dedicated to bringing our society to a halt. I call this faction the Prophets of Shortage. They are the anti-producers, the anti-achievers. The doctrine they preach is that of scarcity and self-denial. By halting the needed expansion of our power system, they can bring this region to its knees."

With no franchise in the debate, no part in planning, no responsibility for constructive action, the anti-producers could run a guerrilla campaign against a dam here, a nuclear plant there, a coal-fired plant somewhere else. Hodel was accustomed to a different tradition. His father had fought an Army Corps of Engineers project in Oregon and not simply been a "spoiler" and a "negativist," but had proposed alternatives.

And so Hodel lashed out at the adherents of a "new McCarthyism" who were using environmental laws to "obstruct the orderly progress of obtaining the power supply this region must have if we are to continue to provide for a reasonable life style for ourselves, our children and the generations to come."

As a phrase, the Prophets of Shortage better described Hodel than it did his adversaries. Hodel was the one who belabored the theme of shortage. In 1976, he put Bonnneville's utility customers on notice: after 1983 the federal power wholesaler could no longer meet the growth in their electric loads. Hodel helped enlist the utilities who took the financial risk of building Projects 4 and 5.

Studies such as the 1978 General Accounting Office report suggested that power growth might be less, but Hodel insisted the projects were needed. Speaking as a private consultant at the Whoops annual meeting in 1980, the year regional power consumption actually declined and two years before it dropped dramatically, he said: "I know no responsible authorities who believe that the completion of these projects on their present or any other schedule will produce a vast amount of power in excess to the needs of this region. So what is my message? The five Supply System plants are needed -- regionally, nationally and internationally."

Came the year of reckoning -- 1983 -- and the Northwest was awash in surplus power.

Under one set of views, Projects 4 and 5 seemed to be needed. Under another set, they did not. Hodel's political antithesis was Rep. James Weaver (D-Ore.), a former real estate developer with strong conservationist views and a pronounced antipathy toward the power establishment, that closed-door, close-knit group of private utilities, aluminum companies, Northwest politicians, big public utilities and Bonneville. Whoops was not alone on the hard path. The region's private utilities invested more than $700 million in four reactors of their own before cancelling them.

Now chairman of the Bonneville oversight subcommittee in Congress, Weaver condemns the federal agency for its role in what he calls "the greatest scandal in the history of the Northwest." In the Contrary Tradition

A brash, oval-faced man, Weaver keeps the contrary tradition of his populist ancestor, James B. Weaver, who got 21 electoral votes in the 1892 presidential election. Weaver calls his unpublished memoirs "Taking on the Establishment." He owns few suits and makes do without a car. He represents the most productive timber region in the country outside of Alaska, but his support for wilderness areas have made him junk wood to the timber industry. (When he shed his toupee, his staff dubbed him Clearcut.)

His hunch about Whoops was from the start, Weaver says. He was certain electricity from nuclear plants would be expensive. When the price went up, he thought, people would use less. In 1971, he narrowed the windows of one of his office projects to save money on heating bills. Conservation had enormous potential in a region that used power as profligately as the Northwest.

Weaver gathered his congressional staff in 1976: "I told them, 'We're going to do everything possible to stop these idiots before they break us. They have too much political power. We'll probably lose, but we've got to try.' I just had a gut reaction the plants weren't going to be needed."

In his prescience, Weaver was the exception (so much so that one cartoon today suggests defaulted Whoops bonds still have value if stuffed into the mouth of the gentleman from Oregon to keep him from saying, "I told you so!").

By the fall of 1980, he was under heavy pressure to quit blocking federal legislation sought by the power establishment. Aluminum companies, which consume more than a third of the region's federal hydroelectricity, wanted new long-term contracts with BPA. The private utilities wanted access to cheap federal power for their customers. Public utilities and Wall Street wanted Bonneville to back Projects 4 and 5 and spread the financial risk of building these newest additions to the great power plan.

Weaver stood in the way.

Full-page newspaper ads paid for by private utilities and others said, "Without You, Jim Weaver, It Could Be Lights Out." In that precious phrase, Weaver was entreated to bring his vision to bear on this important issue -- a polite form of "Fall in with the delegation, chowderhead!"

Weaver had declined to fall in line with the political establishment. He pressed for conservation and provisions that opened energy planning to the public. Trying to hold up the bill, he read more than 70 amendments on the floor of the House.

Given the pressure on Weaver just before the 1980 election, he was braced for a hostile reception from a brotherhood of mill workers when he stopped by a beer bust outside Coos Bay on a campaign visit. A hostile reception is no trifle in Weaver's rough-and-tumble district where bumper stickers invite Sierra Club members to Kiss My Axe, and 600 loggers once circled a courthouse with signs saying Up Weaver's Rump with a Cedar Stump.

(Oregon's Fourth District, says Weaver's longtime chief aide, Joe Rutledge, is the kind of place where "they don't even shut down the chipper at the mill when people fall in, they just put out a load of crimson wood." One of the first things a Weaver staff member learns is how to shake hands with people faring without a full set of fingers.)

Striding into the hall, the congressman was met by a crush of muscular constituents. Up stepped one, as if to proffer a pair of coconuts.

"Weaver!" he growled, "You got balls this big!"

To the congressman's amazement, the mob pressed round, not to dismember him but to slap him on the back like as if her were some sort of hero.

That moment marked the turning of the tide: ratepayers had begun to have their fill of Whoops. In 1979, when Bonneville passed its first major increase since the creation of Grand Coulee dam, the impact of Whoops hit home. As power costs went up, people began to use less and resent Whoops more. A new political force of irate consumers was born.

Anyone who has ever glanced at a page of power statistics will vouch that the nuances of energy forecasting are difficult to grasp, much less enjoy. Predicting power demand is still a gypsy's job, all the computer printouts aside. The crystal ball in the Northwest historically belonged to the Pacific Northwest Utilities Conference Committee, which added up the projections of more than 100 private and public utilities (40 percent of which relied on Bonneville for their figures) and issued the annual 20-year "sum of the utilities" forecast. The methods have changed, but for many years utilities charted the future by extrapolating from the past, a method sometimes likened to driving a car by looking in the rear-view mirror. Mistaking Trend for Destiny

For nearly 30 years the forecasts were accurate. The Northwest's power demand climbed 7.5 percent a year. The price of electricity declined against inflation. Power companies vied to set retail rates low enough to qualify for a One Cent a Kilowatt Hour club. The trend in building new dams and power plants was, the more the merrier.

As Whoops labored on five plants, these happy circumstances began to unravel. The regional forecast of demand proved to be greater than what demand actually was. By the late 1970s, the margin of error was 10 percent, a huge overestimation when extended over the 12 to 14 years it takes to bring nuclear power to bedroom wall sockets. From 1974 to 1981, the forecasted growth rate dropped by an equivalent of a dozen Whoops plants. The further Whoops got with its five, the weaker became the reason for building them.

What made the load projections so high and unreliable? In essence, the forecasters mistook trend for destiny. History is riddled with economic downturns, but utilities have been hard-pressed to plan for anything but boom times.

It was politically more acceptable to build too much than too little, and until recently there had never been a penalty for guessing high. Demand kept catching up with bullish estimates. Bonneville and Northwest utilities alike used population figures that were were exceptionally optimistic -- higher in some cases than the U.S. Census Bureau's, according to court papers. A region with a population not much bigger than the five boroughs of New York City was forecast to need more electricity in 1995 than the entire country consumed in 1950.

The forecasts also took little account of the impact of price on the demand for power. The power was supposed to come in at a reasonable cost. But electricity from Moby Deuce today costs 10 times more than had been estimated. As costs went up, conservation became an economical alternative.

A number of studies concluded that regional forecasts were high, beginning in 1975. Deciding it could get power cheaper through conservation, Seattle opted out of Projects 4 and 5, and tried to hire Arlo Guthrie to update Woody Guthrie's Northwest energy anthem. Numbers were symbols of political attitudes. In June 1976, the Oregon Department of Energy predicted much lower growth than the Pacific Northwest Utilities Conference Committee, a conclusion then-Director Lionel V. Topaz says cost him his job.

"The governor said the way we were going about our job was creating problems. People were unhappy with our findings," recalled Topaz, now general manager of the Emerald People's Utility District. "Electricity is the currency of economic development, and our forecast threatened the supply. The whole thing is money, that's all. The early forecasters were the messengers with the bad news that got slaughtered." 'That Men May Use It as the Air They Breathe'

It was an article of faith among utility officials that the demand for power had to be met, no matter how great. High demand was a sign of a vigorous economy and a virile outlook. Their hearts lay with Emile Zola, quoted in Whoops' 1980 annual report. The French novelist observed in 1885 that "electricity should not merely be supplied, but lavished that men may use it as the air they breathe."

To conservationists, Emile Zola on power made about as much sense as the Maginot Line. Electricity ought to be husbanded like any precious commodity, they argued. Why not find ways to wring more work out of a watt before building expensive new plants? Demand for power should not be viewed as some uncontrollable public appetite that had to be satisfied at any cost, but as a social phenomenon that could be tailored and managed by policy.

In one of the early skirmishes between conservationists and utility officials, Doug Scott of the Sierra Club and Larry Williams of the Oregon Environmental Council tried to crash a meeting in Portland attended by officials from Bonneville and private utilities. As Scott recalls it, someone of their views were not welcome. Williams parked his bright orange Porsche at the far end of the lot. The license plate would have tipped off the power brokers that environmentalists were afoot: NEPA, it said.

Under the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, the wellspring of environmental law, activists such as Scott and a group of lawyers from the Natural Resources Defense Council were trying to open up the power-planning process in the Northwest. The resources council and five environmental groups sued in 1975 to force Bonneville to study alternatives to the Hydro-Thermal plan. Hodel has never identified the Prophets of Shortage by name, but council lawyers consider themselves the suspects.

Power officials acknowledged the importance of conservation as it came into vogue, and President Jimmy Carter donned his cardigan sweater by the White House fireplace. Hodel today cites his testimony and his 1974 federal conservation award as evidence of his early support for conservation. But until the 1980 Northwest Power Act, Bonneville was chartered to promote the widest possible use of electricity, and the agency was so throughly wedded to the doctrine of "build and grow" that it backed more than $6 billion in Whoops bonds before conducting its own independent regional forecast.

And Hodel's critics contend that conservation influenced his policies hardly at all. In 1976, for instance, he denounced a BPA-commissioned study by the planning firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill that said conservation could meet energy demand six times more cheaply than new nuclear plants, and entailed "no significant changes in life style." The draft was completed in May when Bonneville was helping to round up utility sponsors for Projects 4 and 5.

In January of 1977, the Natural Resources Defense Council concluded that two-thirds of the projected nuclear plants of the Hydro-Thermal plan could be eliminated by conservation measures. The report was novel in that it did not challenge the accepted growth rates, but focused on the use of power. To symbolize their "secret plan" to save the Northwest from its plunge into atoms, the publicity-savvy conservationists held up a piece of insulation at a press conference.

The first "alternate scenario" had little influence. In August 1980, the organization published a second, written by Ralph Cavanagh, a Yale Law School graduate who had worked at the Department of Justice for a year before finding his metier with the resources defense council in San Francisco. He argued that even with the most ebullient growth projections, conservation could save the region more than 12,000 megawatts of energy. In November 1982, Cavanagh and two colleagues wrote a third scenario, a 395-page model energy plan. Many of the ideas have been incorporated by the new Northwest Power Planning Agency.

Meanwhile, the world of energy-efficient appliances has been revolutionized. Cavanagh, 31, works amid the advances in heat-retaining film for windows, low-flow shower heads, heat pumps, high-efficiency fluorescent lights and house caulking. He notes with esoteric pleasure the new Sumitomo aluminum manufacturing process. His colleague, David Goldstein, traveled to Japan not for sushi but to have a close look at the latest superefficient Toshiba refrigerators.

Alternate scenarios and conservation studies undercut the rationale for new nuclear plants. But the friction between the power establishment and conservationists may have had something to do with their respective philosophies. A power plant is a cultural monument no less impressive than an opera house or a suspension bridge. Plaques honoring obscure officials and engineers are affixed to central generating stations nationwide. For a utility official, the legacies of house caulking and passive solar heating pale beside the glory of huge turbines innervating distant cities. Voyage to the New World

Today the conservationists possess the franchise they sought in the energy-policy planning process. Cavanagh occasionally has lunch with Peter Johnson, the beetle-browed businessman who now sits as the Duke of Kilowatts. Johnson came in the spring of 1981 without a background in utilities. He found "a vacuum of authority," a situation unlike anything he had ever seen in the construction business. He ranged through history in search of parallels. The one that offered the most insight was how Europe was restructured after Napoleon.

Once again the demand for power is expected to outstrip the supply in seven years or so, but the whole psychology has changed. Where Hodel envisioned a wasteland, seers today are less apocalyptic. No one speaks about factories closing, homes going dark. The calm may be the confidence of planners with new flexibility -- or part of the complacency that seems to have overtaken the country now that it's not fashionable to view energy as "the moral equivalent of war."

In an interview a few months ago, Hodel said the Prophets of Shortage as a depature from the cooperative style he prefers. He emphasized that nuclear power is a vital part of America's energy mix. He feared what's in store for the nation when utilities, burned by unneeded power plants, no longer include energy for industrial growth. The country seemed to be turning away from its own future, Hodel argues. Cavanagh has dismissed the DOE's hard-path report as "a blueprint for fiscal suicide." Hodel wondered if the likes of Cavanagh and Weaver had not fulfilled their own prophesies with the vigor of their opposition. The image of those lost years that sailed into his mind was of Columbus' voyage to the New World.

"When Columbus sailed to the New World, his crew became very concerned," Hodel said. "He feared mutiny. Through his perseverance, he went on. Of course, he didn't find India. In fact he must have been shaken. I'm sure if there had been a congressional oversight committee, one of the questions must have been, how can you justify spending the queen's money on a trip to a place that has no benefit to us?

"What Weaver's saying is, 'Now it's clear it's time to turn back, forget this New World crap, there is no such thing.' And in all honesty, he may be right. He may be right. Statistics may make him look right five years from now," Hodel said. "It's a bootstrap argument that he is able to make today. Partly because of the things he has done, and fought for, and partly because of circumstances, we've reached the situation where it looks like what he said had a lot of validity."

NEXT: The seat of sedition