During the visit of China's President Li Xiannian to Washington, it must have surprised many otherwise knowledgeable Americans to learn that a nuclear cooperation agreement was in the works. On college campuses and in those purlieus where progressive opinion reigns like fundamentalist verities in the boondocks, the bumper stickers make one thing clear, "Split Wood Not Atoms," "No Nukes Is Good Nukes," and "Better Active Today Than Radioactive Tomorrow."

American progressives have seen the future, and it does not include nuclear energy. It includes the "soft energy sources." So what is progressive communist China doing angling toward a nuclear energy agreement with Washington?

China wants to move beyond quaintness. It needs cheap energy. Its leaders realize that most of the soft energy sources are the veriest moonshine. Then, too, they recognize a deal when they see it. Political pressure has diminished the American market for nuclear power plants, and so American producers of such plants are merchanting their goods abroad and at rock bottom prices. American opponents of nuclear energy fear that such transactions will cause nuclear proliferation, which is a possibility. But their aspiration to ban nuclear energy is a delusion. Much of the advanced world is moving ahead with nuclear energy whether our anti-nukers approve or not.

In 1984 57.4 percent of France's delivered electrical energy was nuclear. Are the French a stupid or reckless people? The sober Belgians gobbled up 48.6 percent of their electrical energy from nuclear sources. For the enlightened Swedes the figure was 40.6 percent. For the Swiss, the West Germans and the Japanese the respective figures were 33.6 percent, 23 percent and 20.4 percent. Meanwhile, harassed by the anti-nuclear faithful, the United States consumes a chaste 13.5 percent of its electricity from the nuclear genie, placing us second from the bottom among nuclear-capable industrialized powers.

This is not to say, as many gloomy pro-nukers do, that our nuclear energy industry is doomed. Our scientists and technicians are no more benighted than their European and Japanese counterparts, and nuclear energy is the fastest growing source of electrical power in the country. Yet, according to Peter Beckmann, the pro-nuke editor of Access to Energy, by the 1990s we shall be faced with an electrical shortage. Worn-out power plants are not being replaced fast enough.

Moreover, the anti-nuclear brethren working with mobs and lawyers have made nuclear energy economically ever riskier. It took California's Diablo Canyon plant 14 years to go on line. In recent years unnecessary delays were costing the Pacific Gas and Electric Co. and its clients $30 millon a month. In Pennsylvania an anti-nuker has prevented the Philadelphia Electric Co. from firing up the Limerick 1 reactor. This humanitarian is an inmate of a nearby prison.

In its first month of operation the Diablo Canyon reactor saved $38 million over the cost of oil. The prisoner's protest concerns his doubts that an adequate evacuation plan has been devised for him and his colleagues in event of an emergency at nearby Limerick 1. The reactor's delay costs $35 million to $45 million each month. But we live in a rich country.

I refer to the anti-nukers as the faithful and the brethren because their movement has little to do with science and much to do with faith. Every day Americans die prematurely as a consequence of such energy sources as coal, oil, gas and hydroelectric power. One coal-fired plant can account for more than 100 fatalities yearly from mining accidents, pollution and accidents while transporting the coal. Right now above the San Fernando Valley a pumped-storage hydroelectric dam exists that in event of a proper earthquake could kill 200,000 people. It cracked in 1970 when empty. Imagine if it cracks when full. These are the kinds of tragedies attributed to nuclear energy, though no one has yet died in America from commercial nuclear power.

Fear of the unknown is an ancient human bugaboo. Fear of the known and useful is modern American. It is the kind of fear instilled in us by the anti-nuke brethren.