GOLDEN, COLO. -- In the vision of Energy Secretary James D. Watkins, the end of the Cold War means that the Rocky Flats weapons plant will process more plutonium, not less.

In the vision of Colorado's environmental community, its anti-nuclear activists and many of its politicians, the end of the Cold War should mean a phaseout of Rocky Flats as quickly as possible.

Department of Energy officials say that even if the United States were to begin dismantling all its nuclear weapons tomorrow, the plutonium that sets off the chain reaction of nuclear warheads would have to be processed into stable, storable forms. The only way to do that in the future, or to continue plutonium processing until then, is with something called PRMP -- for Plutonium Recovery Modification Project -- a $571 million program that Watkins is determined to add to the compound that sits on a windswept mesa just north of this Denver suburb.

But Watkins, struggling to bring order out of chaos in the nation's nuclear weapons production system, has not fared well in the early rounds of the fight over PRMP.

Key committees of both houses of Congress have refused to give him $65 million he sought to start construction in fiscal 1991 -- a clear signal that the nuclear weapons complex no longer automatically receives congressional support. And that was only the beginning of what promises to be a long, bitter fight over the future of the 17-site complex of factories that manufacture the instruments of nuclear deterrence.

Rocky Flats is the only U.S. facility that manufactures the softball-size plutonium "pits," or detonators, that set off the chain reaction of nuclear warheads. Workers here handle plutonium, a man-made radioactive element that can be lethal if inhaled, through sealed, lead-lined "glove boxes." But no plutonium processing work is going on because operations were suspended in December for safety reasons.

Opponents of Rocky Flats have little hope of preventing a resumption of work, scheduled for late this year or early next, but they are making headway in their fight against adding PRMP, which would keep Rocky Flats operating for two decades.

Because the United States is not producing plutonium, the supply for future warheads is to come from recycled weapons, from weapons withdrawn from deployment because of arms control agreements, and from plutonium-laden wastes that have accumulated at Rocky Flats. Watkins has told Congress that these plutonium recovery tasks must be carried on at Rocky Flats, at least until the weapons complex is fully modernized in the next century.

"As long as there's a nuclear deterrent, there's got to be a Rocky Flats," said Robert Nelson, the plant manager. "Long after any agreement that lets us back away from nuclear weapons, we will need Rocky Flats. Every nuclear weapon we have is born here and ends here. All the weapons, as they get demilitarized and the plutonium material goes back to ingots, that's going to be done here. We want PRMP because we could do our work much better with it."

Seeking funds for PRMP, Watkins said in a letter to key members of Congress that failure to build the new processing facility "would have the following serious consequences: Higher than necessary radiation exposure to the plutonium recovery workers. Increased risk of failure to support the nuclear weapons stockpile plan. Continued operation of aging facilities which present greater risk of insult to the environment. Higher routine risks from increased stripping of plutonium residues. Reduced ability to provide reliable support for any reduction of the weapons stockpile."

But a growing alliance of Energy Department critics, environmentalists, anti-nuclear activists and budget-conscious politicians is challenging all these arguments.

They say the United States should be planning to cut back the production of nuclear weapons, not to enhance its capability; that even if recapture of plutonium from existing warheads is needed, it can be done at other facilities; and that even if PRMP is clearly necessary and must be built at Rocky Flats, DOE is not competent to do the job. They point out, and the Energy Department acknowledges, that an earlier attempt to build a new facility was botched in the early 1980s.

"The question of whether you need to do this is one thing. Another question is where you need to do it," said Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.), who has introduced a bill to force the closure of Rocky Flats. "With the Energy Department, you can forget question A, you just assume they and the Defense Department are going to say yes. But question B -- this is a lousy place to do this work" because of its proximity to large population centers, she said.

Schroeder, Rep. David E. Skaggs (D-Colo.) and Sen. Timothy E. Wirth (D- Colo.) are pressing the Energy Department to carry out its intention to phase out Rocky Flats and move its plutonium activities to another site in the nuclear complex, such as Savannah River, S.C., or the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

Watkins, who is preparing a long-term modernization plan for the entire weapons complex, does not dispute that Rocky Flats should be closed eventually, but he has insisted that PRMP is still needed to bridge the gap of 20 years or so until modernization is complete.

Schroeder and other Rocky Flats opponents argue that it makes no sense to spend nearly $600 million on a plant that is destined for closure. "If you spend that money to put up another building, you know they'll never move it," she said.

Skaggs said there are four possible reasons why Rocky Flats might have to keep operating: to "do the plutonium work necessary for retrofitting" existing warheads that may not be safe; to "deal with plutonium from decommissioned warheads"; to make new 'pits' for newly designed warheads; and to extract plutonium from accumulated wastes.

"There are serious questions about each of these reasons," he said. "My intuition says there is going to continue to be a need for that plant for a while, but there's no need to rush" into restarting the plant, let alone to build PRMP. "There's no national security issue," he said.

Tom Zamora, who has studied Rocky Flats for the anti-nuclear Federation of American Scientists, said that by stressing the need for PRMP to handle weapons removed from the arsenal, Watkins is "campaigning to sell the idea that PRMP specifically and Rocky Flats in general is necessary for arms control. First it was for production, then for decontamination and decommissioning of the facility, then for arms control. The question is, does it have a mission at all?"

According to Melinda Kassen, an Environmental Defense Fund lawyer in Boulder who has followed Rocky Flats issues for years, the Energy Department "appears to argue that it needs to build PRMP because upgrading its existing facilities to meet present nuclear-safety criteria and worker-protection standards would cost $1.1 billion, as opposed to $600 million for PRMP. DOE's own admissions in this regard, however, serve not to justify PRMP but to demonstrate why the existing process lines should not be restarted, not later this year, not ever."

The Energy Department operates on the premise that nuclear weapons will continue to be manufactured, and therefore Rocky Flats will continue to operate and should be upgraded.

PRMP project director Frazer R. Lockhart said that "the weapons people want the plutonium" that would be reprocessed from stored wastes, but stressed that there are important environmental and safety reasons for building the facility.

He said existing processing facilities produce large amounts of what is known as transuranic waste, which is radioactive and requires special handling. PRMP, he said, would produce "pure plutonium and low-level waste, minimizing the transuranic waste in the middle."

As for the plutonium in existing warheads, he said, PRMP would enable Rocky Flats workers to purge it of americium, the decayed form of plutonium that emits a much more dangerous form of radiation. "It's possible to retire nuclear weapons without doing this, but the americium content only exposes anyone in contact with them to more radiation, which only increases with time," he said.

Watkins had planned to resume plutonium processing in the existing facilities this summer and to start building PRMP in fiscal 1991, but both timetables have been thrown off. Restart has been delayed by safety problems, raising concerns in the Defense Department about the availability of new warheads for Trident missile submarines. Congressional opposition has killed PRMP at least until 1992, when the project can be analyzed in the context of the long-term plan for the entire complex Watkins is expected to produce next spring.

Meanwhile, the fate of Rocky Flats is a big political issue here, partly because of its perceived safety threat to the Denver area -- though scientific evidence about the extent of the threat is inconclusive -- and partly because the plant employs more than 5,500 workers.

James D. Kelly, a United Steelworkers official, said they are furious with the politicians who oppose PRMP.

"These workers have waited for James D. Watkins for 35 years," he said. "Now that he's here, everyone's trying to roadblock and stonewall him from straightening the place out."

He said that until Rocky Flats "is safely closed or relocated, it has to be used for the defense of this country. Building a new facility doesn't mean it would stay forever, but we're talking about maybe two generations of workers. It's our lives they're talking about."