An organization partly financed by nuclear utilities has been underwriting a polling and public relations campaign to persuade western states to accept a controversial burial site for nuclear waste.

The Committee for Energy Awareness has formed "study groups" in Nevada, Washington and Utah and hired three local public relations firms to stress the positive aspects of nuclear-waste disposal. The committee, which receives more than half its $20 million budget from 50 utilities, also has financed local opinion polls on waste disposal and is paying a Los Angeles consulting firm to help organize the study groups.

The Energy Department announced this week that the prime sites for the nation's first permanent nuclear-waste repository are in the Texas Panhandle, Nevada's Yucca Mountain and a government reservation near Richland, Wash. The backup sites are Davis Canyon in Utah and a salt dome near Richton, Miss.

Environmentalists and state and local officials promptly criticized the sites as being too close to groundwater supplies or having other ecological problems. With nuclear reactors running out of room for waste now totaling 70,000 metric tons and growing, a final decision is expected by 1990.

"We thought it was important to try to stabilize public opinion so the states could make up their own minds," said Carl Goldstein, vice president of the Committee for Energy Awareness (CEA). He said that opponents were trying "to poison the atmosphere" on a "highly emotional issue" and that the citizens' panels include businessmen, scientists and others who advocate a factual approach to the problem.

"We're simply helping them organize," Goldstein said. "We don't direct this thing from Washington, D.C."

But Jan Bearden of the Safe Energy Communication Council, an antinuclear group, accused the CEA of a "covert attempt . . . to influence the outcome of the waste disposal issue."

Goldstein said "people became more reassured" when the group's pollsters read them a series of statements about waste disposal. It is understood that favorable responses doubled in some cases when people were told that the disposal process was extremely safe, has been carefully studied and would bring growth to their communities.

Goldstein said he didn't think that the polling questions were "propagandistic" but that they had "a calming effect."

CEA's consulting firm, Winner/Wagner & Associates, urged the group to emphasize to people in the target states "that nuclear waste disposal is a highly scientific endeavor, that the Congress and president are taking the leadership in the project, that the disposal method has been exhaustively tested, that the site is geographically isolated and that the site will provide substantial employment for the area . . . "

Goldstein said the CEA had rejected the consultant's proposal for an $8-million advertising campaign on the waste issue.

David Cooper, a Las Vegas public relations executive hired by CEA, said the Nevada study group was not promoting nuclear-waste disposal in the state. However, he said, "it is fair to say that people on the committee are less resistant to the location of a nuclear-waste facility" at the Nevada site, about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas.