Skepticism about nuclear energy has risen to record levels in the United States since the Soviets' disaster at Chernobyl, according to a Washington Post-ABC News public opinion poll.

In polling over a five-day period that ended Monday, 78 percent of 1,506 people interviewed said they oppose construction of more nuclear plants in the United States. Four of every 10 said they support phasing out existing plants.

By comparison, Post-ABC News polls in 1983 and 1985 showed 65 and 67 percent, respectively, opposed to construction of nuclear plants. In addition, an examination of pre-Chernobyl surveys revealed none in which sentiment for closing existing plants approached the current level.

As in the past, the strongest opposition to using nuclear energy to generate electricity comes from women. Eighty-five percent of the women surveyed are against construction of nuclear plants; only 12 percent favor such construction. But opposition is also high among men: 71 percent against new plants, 26 percent in favor.

Forty-eight percent of women and 34 percent of men favor phasing out existing plants.

The new poll shows that over a 10-year period many Americans have come full circle in their views on nuclear power. They have moved in stages from a confidence in nuclear power to doubts and, now, to widespread opposition.

In 1976, after an Arab oil embargo helped to make sources of energy a major national concern, a Gallup poll, typical of the time, showed 71 percent of the public saying that it was "somewhat important" or "very important" to develop a greater nuclear capacity.

When asked, most people during the 1970s considered themselves supporters of nuclear power. Only about 25 percent identified themselves as opponents.

After the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island, a new group, neither supporters nor opponents, emerged: people who listed themselves as undecided about nuclear energy in theory but who generally opposed construction of more plants until technology could assure their safety.

This group rapidly developed as the single largest block of the population. In the Post-ABC poll in 1985, for example, 40 percent listed themselves as undecided about nuclear power, compared to 29 percent who said they were supporters. Another 27 percent -- basically no change from before Three Mile Island -- said they were opponents.

In the new survey, however, the number opposing nuclear power as an energy source has increased, and the number of undecideds and supporters gone down. Thirty-six percent list themselves as opponents, 35 percent as undecided, 27 percent as supporters.

Still, when it comes to public opinion, it may be too soon to write off nuclear power altogether. Even many skeptics profess faith that technology can come up with the answers.

In the new Post-ABC poll, 42 percent said they regard nuclear plants as "somewhat" or "very" safe, and 53 percent as "somewhat" or "very" unsafe. Those who said "unsafe" were asked whether the plants could be made safe in the future. Half said yes.

The new survey also found:Fifty-five percent say they think that nuclear plants in the United States are safer than the ones in the Soviet Union, 35 percent say they think U.S. plants are about as safe and 2 percent say they think U.S. plants are less safe. People express little faith in either the government or the critics when it comes to pronouncements on the risks of nuclear power: 14 percent say they have a "great deal" of trust in the government, 9 percent a "great deal" of trust in the critics. A majority, 58 percent, says radioactive waste from nuclear plants cannot be disposed of safely. Thirty-three percent say it can be.