On the modernistic wall of Central United Protestant Church here, the symbol of a spinning atom swirls off a sculpted image of mankind's uplifted hand, its fingertips hoisting the atom toward the church spire and heaven.

In the neighboring town of Pasco, people shop at a grocery store called Atomic Foods.

And in nearby Kennewick, the third part of the Tri-Cities in this isolated sagebrush region of eastern Washington, folks can drop in at the Atomic Health Center for a massage after a hard day's work at the Hanford Nuclear Works north of town.

Boasting a combined population of 140,000 in a desert-oasis crook of the Columbia River, these three towns have lived with the atom for more than 40 years -- and learned to love it.

This pronuclear enclave is the only area in the country that has sought the privilege of becoming home to the nation's nuclear waste dump; the only place to see the Three Mile Island accident as a blessing in disguise that would force new nuclear reactors away from populated areas and into its desert backyard. Environmentalists -- known locally as outside agitators and "wood burners" -- enter at their peril.

"We are a hermetically sealed community that sees and hears what we want to see and hear," said Larry Caldwell, a former Hanford worker whose father came here in 1943 to work on the top-secret project that produced plutonium for the first atomic bomb.

Part of that seal was broken this week when the world tried to absorb the news of an apparent meltdown at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in the Soviet Union.

Less than 25 miles upriver from Richland is Hanford's N reactor, an aging nuclear plant with more similarities to Chernobyl than any other reactor in the United States. To moderate its nuclear reaction, the reactor uses the kind of graphite that burned out of control at Chernobyl. Like Chernobyl, and unlike most U.S. plants, the reactor lacks the huge containment dome that held in most of the radioactivity at Three Mile Island.

Reports from the Soviet Union indicate that the Chernobyl accident forced total evacuation within a 19-mile radius of the plant. Nineteen miles would bring a similar evacuation to the edge of Richland.

Still, to conjure visions of panic in the desert or deep second thoughts in America's foremost atomic community would be to misread the climate here.

"It's a good topic of conversation, something new to talk about, but I haven't talked to a single person who's worried," said Richland Mayor John Poyner. "Hell, I've gotten far more calls from the media than I have from citizens. This is all an overblown media event, the television networks rushing in here in their Learjets. We do things a lot differently from the Russians."

The Tri-City Herald did a poll this week and found 13 residents of 70 more concerned about living here after Chernobyl. So there are some troubled folks in this community where the atom made the desert bloom -- economically.

Hanford is the economy here, employing 14,000 residents, about 2,200 of whom work at the reactor. Most of the jobs pay well, and the Chamber of Commerce boasts that the region has the 14th highest per capita income in the country. "I don't know enough about it to know if it can happen here," Poyner said, "but there isn't much point in worrying about it. This is where we live and this is where we work, and we like it."

That mood is expressed many ways here.

"Look," said Caldwell, one of the community's few gadfly opponents of the N reactor, "this is an RV society. People get paid well. They close their eyes. They go out to work at that decrepit old reactor five days a week wearing their 'I Glow In The Dark' T-shirts, and then they escape into the desert in their campers over the weekend."

"People like to live here, and you have to understand the mentality," said Dr. Herbert Cahn, the area's chief public health officer. "It's like living next to a dynamite factory. People choose to work and live here. They respect the danger. But they figure the greater danger is getting hit by a drunk driver on their way home from work."

Cahn is concerned about the "eyes-closed" attitude of a business community with a vested interest in the Department of Energy, which runs the reactor because it produces weapons-grade plutonium as well as electric power.

Six years ago, Cahn started a one-man campaign for community-wide distribution of iodine pills, the kind that Polish schoolchildren took this week as a blocking agent for the radioactive iodide released at Chernobyl.

Cahn got nowhere. The business community did not want the bad publicity, and local government ignored him, although the cost was estimated at only $50,000. "I could have become a martyr and resigned," said Cahn, now 70. He plans to try again, but he is not optimistic.

"The official attitude is that it can't happen here," he said. "I don't think it will happen. But it's wrong to say it isn't possible. Dynamite factories blow up. And if it ever happens here, we won't have a few days to line up the schoolchildren the way they did in Poland. We'll have a few hours."

Meanwhile, at Hanford, the usually hypersecretive DOE has taken extraordinary steps, including photo opportunities at the plant, to assure the news media and the public that this is no Chernobyl. DOE officials point to technical differences, including the thickness of the reactor's protective walls and its lower operating temperatures.

Officials say they are far more worried about terrorism than accidents. Inside the reactor's vast, fenced reservation, armored and camouflaged vehicles roam the several hundred square miles of bleak, empty desert. Building roofs are topped with sandbagged troop emplacements.

In town, business is resuming its normal pace as the media horde retreats. Cahn says his office is receiving quite a few more calls than usual -- but not about the reactor. His callers are more worried about the high-altitude radioactive cloud expected here from Chernobyl some time next week.