In the indigo moment before the sun rises and the night is not yet gone, the vast lava plain that lies at the foot of the Lost River Range in eastern Idaho reveals itself – raw, empty, magnetic. In July, the wind blows hot, and dust rakes the brush and fills the gullies. In February, the sky turns deep blue, and blinding snow robes the western summits and chokes the craggy canyons.

It was terrain like this in the West – fresh, elemental and magnificent – that the United States chose in the mid-20th century for the development of atomic energy. The Government arrived in Idaho Falls in May 1949 to turn the hard ground east of the Lost River Range into the National Reactor Testing Station, the world’s largest proving ground for nuclear energy and a vital link in the chain of plants around the country that produced materials for nuclear weapons.

More than any of the other Federal atomic reservations in the West – along the Columbia River near Richland, Wash.; in the mountains in Los Alamos, N.M.; in Livermore, Calif.; in Amarillo, Tex., and at sites near Las Vegas, Nev., and Denver – the 890-square-mile Idaho reservation was viewed in 1949 as an open frontier where the Government would test the vast potential of both civilian and military uses of energy derived from the atom.

Over the next four decades, two generations of workers and the desert towns surrounding the site struck up an unquestioning alliance with the atom. It was in Idaho in the 1950’s that the Navy built and tested the reactors that powered nuclear submarines and surface ships. The Atomic Energy Commission and the Air Force spent more than $1 billion in an unsuccessful attempt to design nuclear-powered airplanes.

A large chemical processing plant was built in the early 50’s to recover uranium from spent nuclear fuel for later use in the manufacture of materials for nuclear weapons at other sites. In 1986, when the Department of Energy chose this desert test site – renamed the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory in 1974 – as the place to build an advanced-technology laser plant, most Idahoans welcomed the chance to prove their commitment anew.

The plant, known as the Special Isotope Separation Project, would use laser beams to purify plutonium, a principal constituent of nuclear warheads, and would be the nation’s first new atomic weapons production plant built since 1963. With this project, the Government was to begin the long and expensive program to rebuild the country’s nuclear weapons industry.

Last month, however, in a remarkable setback for the nuclear weapons industry, the Bush Administration canceled the $1.2 billion plant in its proposed budget for fiscal 1991. The action reflects a number of unusual events.

First, the democracy movement sweeping through much of Eastern Europe and the warming of relations with the Soviet Union may well result in a drastic reduction in nuclear armaments. If this happens, there will be much less of a need for the plutonium, uranium, tritium and other materials produced by the nation’s nuclear weapons industry.

Second, for increasing numbers of Idahoans and other Westerners, weapons production in their backyards has worn out its welcome. In fact, the nuclear weapons industry, the embodiment of America’s terror of a Communist supremacy, is itself now regarded as a far more palpable threat not only to the nation’s security but also to their own.

Through a devastating series of disclosures by The (Twin Falls) Times-News, The (Idaho Falls) Post-Register, the Snake River Alliance (a state environmental group) and the Natural Resources Defense Council (a national environmental organization), Idahoans learned over the last 26 months that all had not been well at the atomic reservation.

From 1957 to 1963, officials at the reservation secretly released at least 2,800 curies of radioactive iodine – about 200 times the amount released in the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island – over communities southwest and northeast of the plant. The emissions from the chemical processing plant were produced during normal operations to extract uranium from spent nuclear fuel rods, and they took place only when the winds blew over communities southwest and northeast of the reservation.

According to John R. Horan, the former director of health and safety for the Atomic Energy Commission, the predecessor of the Department of Energy, who monitored these operations, officials sought to direct the clouds away from Idaho Falls and other towns east of the plant. He said officials chose a path that would pass over the largest portion of the laboratory so that the radioactive material would fall within the confines of the site.

Although it was common knowledge that a reactor at the reservation had exploded on Jan. 3, 1961, killing three military men, what Idahoans didn’t learn until last year was a full account of the aftermath of the explosion: an invisible radioactive cloud had escaped and settled over towns south and west of the plant, and radiation continued to be released for two weeks.

The Idaho National Engineering Laboratory is the site of one of the oldest and largest radioactive waste disposal sites for trash and chemicals contaminated with plutonium and other transuranic elements heavier than uranium. Idahoans also learned to their dismay that, from 1952 to 1970, plutonium-contaminated wastes, along with barrels of toxic solvents and other trash, were haphazardly dumped into shallow pits in an 88-acre site. Two years ago, the Energy Department identified solvents leaking from this site into the Snake River aquifer, the vast freshwater underground reservoir that lies beneath much of eastern Idaho. Tests also showed that plutonium had migrated through the rock layers at least 110 feet below the dump.

Last June, in an editorial that has become a refrain, The Times-News, the daily newspaper in Twin Falls, southern Idaho’s largest city, warned that ”Idahoans must protect themselves” from the plant.

At the same time that Idahoans were making their discoveries, it was also revealed that an astonishing record of contamination, unsafe working conditions, nuclear accidents, mechanical breakdowns and technical failures existed at the 17 principal plants and laboratories in 12 states that make up the core of the nuclear weapons industry. This vast array of problems – carefully hidden from the public by the Government for many years – has altered the way millions of Americans think about nuclear weapons. Today, for the first time, nuclear arms policies are no longer the exclusive province of arms controllers. Instead, fears about health, safety and the environment are causing communities in areas near the weapons plants to ask pointed questions about the dangers they face.

But for the Bush Administration and the Congress there is this thorny problem: How can the United States conduct its nuclear weapons policies effectively when one of the least trusted and most feared bureaucracies is in charge of building nuclear arms?

The Energy Department, the Department of Defense and conservatives on Capitol Hill see in the collapse of the nuclear weapons industry, and the public’s response to it, a weakening of the readiness of the nuclear arsenal and therefore a threat to national security. Others see the confusion within the industry – and the public focus on that confusion – as a historic opportunity to curb the arms race.

In essence, the issue debated in Idaho, and resonating in Washington, Moscow and other world capitals, is this: Is it time to stop building nuclear weapons plants?

It was November 1988 and Elizabeth A. Paul, the 31-year-old executive director of the Snake River Alliance, was back in Ketchum, Idaho, after leading protests in Twin Falls and Idaho Falls against the Special Isotope Separation Project. A native Californian who migrated to Ketchum in 1979 to work as a cross-country ski instructor, Elizabeth Paul, more than anyone else, has been responsible for Idaho’s change of heart on nuclear issues.

”The whole issue comes down to need,” she said. ”The Energy Department says it needs the plant, but if you ask them why, they say it’s classified. Then their own people admit to Congress that there is a surplus of plutonium. . . . And that, in the end, is why this plant will not be built.”

By late 1988, Liz Paul knew she could win. Moving the battle over the plutonium laser plant past the familiar jobs-versus-environment debate, she posed this question to Idahoans: Are you going to support a nuclear weapons project for the sake of 440 construction jobs or are you going to say the plant is a waste of money and a menace to mankind? Armed with an unusual knack for making the arcane understandable to cattle ranchers, sheepherders, potato farmers and working-class families, Liz Paul carried her message to corners of Idaho that rarely even thought about either the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory or the things that were done there.

”This nation is at a crossroads in the atomic age,” she said. ”The old factories are reaching the end of their lifetimes. For the first time, there is clear choice about what to do about building the next generation. The choice is to rebuild the bomb industry or to turn our energies elsewhere and decide as a nation that it’s time to move on. What you’re seeing in Idaho is people saying they don’t want to participate in the weapons industry anymore. If we can stop it here, it can be stopped anywhere.”

Although the Energy Department contended that most Idahoans were not sympathetic to Liz Paul’s ideas, it became apparent last year that support for them was quite strong in unexpected quarters, particularly among some of the state’s young conservative leaders. By far the most outspoken of them was Mark D. Stubbs, a 39-year-old lawyer and chairman of the Republican Party in Twin Falls County, about 150 miles southwest of the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory.

”If there ever was a moral issue, this is it,” said Stubbs in his Twin Falls office. ”How many times do we need to blow up the earth? I understand arguments that we need a balance to maintain deterrence. But what I don’t understand is the need to make more materials for more bombs.”

Liz Paul also found support in the farming communities surrounding the nuclear plant, including Rupert, a town of prosperous potato farmers that is 80 miles south of the weapons plant. In the 1950’s, farmers cleared brush from the desert around Rupert and turned on the irrigation pumps to draw water from the huge Snake River aquifer that flows beneath much of eastern Idaho. A substantial portion of Idaho’s $554 million potato crop is grown in the region, and Rupert’s farmers became worried about contamination of the aquifer by the atomic reservation’s chemical processing plant, which began operating in 1953.

For 31 years, billions of gallons of waste water contaminated with chemicals and radioactive substances, including plutonium, were pumped down a well into the Snake River aquifer before the practice was halted in 1986. The United States Geological Survey, an Interior Department agency that has been monitoring the site for decades, said none of the contamination had reached beyond the plant’s borders, which are miles from the injection well. (The well was permanently sealed by the Energy Department last November.) The Snake River aquifer has a slow southerly current, and the atomic reservation, after all, covers an area three-fourths the size of Rhode Island. The Government has tested the water around Rupert for radioactive constituents and pesticides, which are heavily applied to the potato fields. So far, the tests show no contamination from radioactive elements.

The plant’s northern border towns also became concerned about the long history of radioactive emissions from the chemical processing plant. Mud Lake – a hamlet of steel buildings, dust-blown roads and skeletal, wind-raked trees at the northern border of the atomic reservation – was in the path of most emissions. People in Mud Lake said last July that they never knew there had been radioactive releases. The disclosures shook a town that had never feared the Government.

Area residents were not mollified when Don Ofte, the laboratory’s manager, said, in response to newspaper reports about the radioactive emissions: ”The fact that residents were not pre-notified about each release is because releases were within allowable limits and offered no threat to the public.”

”We raise cattle and kids, and we’ve had no tragedies so far as I can tell,” said Russell A. Osborne, a 58-year-old rancher. ”But now we find out they’ve been dumping radiation on us. Why did they keep it secret? It makes you think. What else are they hiding?”

When President Ronald Reagan offered the Special Isotope Separation Project to Idaho before the 1986 Congressional election, no one in the Energy Department anticipated that it would run into trouble. The laser plant was seen by most Idahoans as a boost to the candidacy of Senator Steven D. Symms, a Republican then running in a close race for re-election, and a tidy way to keep Federal dollars flowing to Idaho Falls, where 10,700 people are employed by the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory, and the $350 million payroll is the largest for hundreds of miles.

The laser plant, however, was always an industrial orphan looking for a home. When it was first proposed in 1981, the Energy Department urged that it be built at the Hanford Reservation in Washington State, one of the three original atomic weapons plants built during the Manhattan Project of World War II. The Reagan Administration, then in the midst of planning a huge arms buildup, said the plant would enhance the nation’s security by purifying plutonium from military and civilian nuclear fuel.

Dr. Thomas B. Cochran, a physicist and senior scientist in Washington for the Natural Resources Defense Council, was the first to criticize the plant, saying it was a provocative step toward accelerating the arms race. Cochran and other critics also pointed out that the proposal to process civilian nuclear fuel undermined the spirit if not the letter of the 1968 international Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which prohibits the use of civilian nuclear industries for military purposes. Prodded by the criticism, Congress in 1982 voted specifically to ban weapons building at civilian reactors.

In 1986, revelations about nuclear waste contamination and releases of radioactive gases at the Hanford Reservation during the 1940’s and 50’s, coupled with the accident at Chernobyl in the Soviet Union in April 1986, made the safety of this weapons plant a top issue in the Senate race in Washington State. Brock Adams, the Democratic candidate, was critical of Hanford; Senator Slade Gorton, the Republican incumbent, defended it but late in his campaign came out against the storage of nuclear waste at that site. The Reagan Administration responded in the summer of 1986 by transferring the isotope project from a hostile state to a friendlier one, hoping its removal might save Gorton in Washington and help Symms in Idaho.

The isotope project was presented to Idahoans as an advanced laser and chemical processing plant that would turn impure plutonium, unfit for use in warheads, into purer weapon-grade plutonium. The Energy Department said the plant would consist of four buildings constructed near the center of the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory and about 30 miles west of Idaho Falls. The agency also issued the traditional assurances: radiation would be released to the environment but at levels that would be harmless to residents living off site; handling the plant’s wastes, particularly the radioactive plutonium wastes, would present few difficulties.

Trade unions and business leaders in Idaho Falls greeted the proposal enthusiastically – 440 people were needed to build the plant; 750 to run it.

”All we saw was the jobs,” said James E. Reed, a labor mediator close to the unions that would build the plant. In 1988, he was named director of Citizens for I.N.E.L., a group in Idaho Falls that lobbied for the new plutonium-processing plant. ”The projects out on the site were getting old. We needed a new program to keep things going. And we thought this one was safe politically. It was a Government project. No problem.”

The Snake River Alliance and its ally in Washington, the Natural Resources Defense Council, counterattacked.

The council’s campaign – which focused on the lack of a clear need for the plutonium plant and the safety risks it would impose – was led by Dan W. Reicher, a 33-year-old lawyer. ”We have plenty of plutonium and uranium,” Reicher said. ”We are in a mode where we are reducing the size of the weapons stockpile. Even the Energy Department admits that were we to reach an arms agreement with the Soviets on long-range missiles, the Government would have to reconsider its commitment to building the [laser] plant in Idaho.”

The groundwork for the council’s attack had been laid down in the early 1980’s, intensifying in 1986 and early 1987. Both Reicher and Liz Paul viewed the battle to defeat the Special Isotope Separation Project as an important first step toward stopping the nuclear threat at its source. The idea, considered blasphemous in years past, was gaining attention and legitimacy in Washington as early as 1987. There were two reasons for this. The first was the enormous, expensive task of cleaning up radioactive and toxic wastes and modernizing the industry, now estimated to cost $100 billion to $200 billion. The second was the prospect of important arms control agreements between the United States and the Soviet Union.

In February 1987, during a public hearing in Boise, Idaho’s capital, Reicher and Tom Cochran, the physicist for the Natural Resources Defense Council, pointed out the flaw in the Energy Department’s argument that the laser plant was essential. Cochran, a former member of the Energy Department’s energy research advisory board, explained to the panel and a sizable audience of residents, environmentalists and Energy Department employees that the nation’s stockpile of weapon-grade plutonium was about 100 metric tons; 85 percent of it was in the 22,500 warheads in the nuclear arsenal and the remainder formed a sizable surplus.

Cochran said agreements for missile reductions with the Soviet Union had raised the possibility that tons of additional plutonium would become available from retired warheads. Moreover, Cochran said, the supply of impure plutonium stored at Hanford and at the Savannah River Plant was enough only to keep the laser project operating for seven or eight years – a fact later confirmed by the Energy Department. In early 1988, during a public hearing before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the Interior and Related Agencies, John S. Herrington, then the Energy Secretary, confirmed Cochran’s testimony. ”We’re awash in plutonium,” he said. ”We have more plutonium than we need.”

Don Ofte, a 60-year-old chemist and, until his retirement last December, the Energy Department’s manager for the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory, began his Government career in 1966. He held senior positions in the Energy Department in Washington as well as in several Federal atomic plants, including the Rocky Flats Plant near Denver, one of the most troubled of all the atomic weapons plants. He was one of the last of a generation of bomb builders who produced nuclear materials without interference by Congress, the press or by activists.

In a windowless conference room at the Energy Department’s office in Idaho Falls, Ofte last summer defended the plutonium processing project. ”This project is not dead,” he said. ”The project is certainly delayed. I think the reasons it came into being initially are still valid today. It was established to provide a contingency source of plutonium to support national security needs. It was contingent on things that could go wrong. Several things have gone wrong. In my mind the need is probably stronger today than when the project was initiated.”

But when asked to clarify the need for the plant, Ofte said: ”The problem we have is that the line of questioning that you are following here does not take very long before you start getting into classified information. We stop in this arena and we offered that classified testimony to the House and the Senate committees. Until this year, Congress recognized the urgency of this project.”

Shortly after this interview, however, the House Armed Services Committee, taking into account a study by its special panel on the nuclear weapons industry, voted to bar funds for building the plutonium-purifying plant for at least a year. The vote was the first in a series of political setbacks sustained last year by the Energy Department.

Representative John M. Spratt Jr., a Democrat from South Carolina and chairman of the special panel that studied the nuclear weapons industry, said the Armed Services Committee would not have taken its action if Liz Paul and her ally in Washington, the Natural Resources Defense Council, had not been successful in raising questions about the need and cost of the project or the changing current of popular support for it in Idaho. ”They put the issue on the Congressional agenda,” he said.

By the end of last summer, the intensity of the antinuclear movement in Idaho and the effectiveness of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s campaign in Washington had thrown the Energy Department and its supporters in Congress into disarray. Even Adm. James D. Watkins, the Secretary of Energy, had determined by late 1989 that the money to be spent on the project would be better used for other purposes in the weapons industry, particularly environmental programs.

”We’ve never had a debate like this in Idaho,” said Senator James A. McClure, a Republican from Idaho and the plutonium project’s most influential supporter in Congress, during a break in a Senate floor debate last summer. ”Those who are erecting opposition have been successful in their work. I see it as reckless. We are going to have a materials requirement in our defense complex to maintain the nuclear deterrent for the next 25 to 30 years. Our opponents believe in unilateral disarmament. I do not, and U.S. policy does not believe in unilateral disarmament. If you really want to lower the level of nuclear armaments in the world, then the best way to do it is to prepare to produce them.”

In the meantime, while Dan Reicher was sowing doubts about the laser project in Washington, Liz Paul was racing around Idaho in her pickup (the bed piled with protest signs and leaflets), talking to community groups, mobilizing the opposition for public meetings.

”The Energy Department did not pick Idaho for the [laser plant] by chance,” she said in Gooding, Idaho, where she was devising new tactics against the plant. ”Their strategy was to place the project in the path of least resistance. What’s happened here is not a fluke. We represent the mainstream of America, and America is making a choice. For the first time, a bomb plant is being rejected.”

The Department of Energy has already spent $588 million on the development of the Special Isotope Separation Project, and it plans to spend $163 million more before the research program is terminated in September 1991. It had hoped to follow the construction of the Idaho laser plant with four new nuclear reactors to be based in Idaho and another at the Savannah River site in South Carolina. Proposals for refurbishing a plutonium processing plant in Colorado and a plutonium research building in New Mexico also are facing intense public opposition as Congress considers the more than $8 billion all the projects are estimated to cost.

On Aug. 12, 1945, six days after Hiroshima was destroyed by the first combat use of an atomic weapon, President Harry S. Truman made public a report that chronicled the top-secret enterprise to develop an entirely new technology of war. Though most of the report was devoted to the breakthroughs in physics and engineering that made the atomic bomb possible, it closed by raising several questions about the wisdom of developing and using a technology capable of ”unimaginable destructive power.”

”These questions are not technical questions; they are political and social questions, and the answer given to them may affect all mankind for generations,” wrote Dr. Henry D. Smyth, author of the report and a physicist at Princeton University. ”In a free country like ours, such questions should be debated by the people and decisions must be made by the people.”

For decades, the Atomic Energy Commission and its successor, the Department of Energy, largely blocked a broad public discussion of military uses of the atom through a policy of secrecy and deception. Now that the consequences of such secrecy in Idaho have become public knowledge, the people for the first time have made an informed choice. Here, on the lava plain of eastern Idaho, where physicists for four decades challenged the technical boundaries of atomic energy, a new political testing ground has emerged. Idaho is a powerful sign that the Energy Department faces a wearying, and perhaps fruitless, struggle to build new nuclear weapons plants not only in Idaho but also across the country.

photos: More than 400 people turned out last fall to demonstrate against a plutonium plant. Below: Protest leader Elizabeth Paul. (N. S. NOKKENTVED/THE TIMES-NEWS & JERRY HADAM.)