The nuclear industry has had its problems lately, but help is on the way. Sometime in the next few months, the Food and Drug Administration is expected to issue a proposal that will allow limited use of low-dosage radiation as a means of preserving such basic foodstuffs as fruit, vegetables, fish, and poultry.

The process involves exposing prepackaged food to a radioactive isotope (such as cobalt-60) emitting enough radiation to kill off harmful bacteria without significantly altering either the taste or appearance of the food itself. Perishables treated in this way can be stored for long periods without refrigeration. When you are ready to fix your dinner, you simply wander into your pantry, pick a chicken off the shelf, and start cooking. That is, if you don't mind cooking a warm, slightly irradiated fowl.

One company already plowing the commercial food-irradiation field is Radiation Technology Inc., based in Rockaway, N.J. Chief executive officer Martin A. Welt plans to open as many as six new plants in the next couple of years, each one capable of processing as many as 2 million pounds of pasteurized poultry a day. Welt notes that irradiated-food exports account for nearly 10% of Radiation Technology's business, and he boasts of the huge energy savings attainable through gamma treatment. Indeed, it takes about 1,000 kilowatt hours to preserve a ton of food with radiation. Freezing or canning the same amount of food would require 4,500 or 6,500 kilowatt hours, respectively.

Not everyone agrees, however, that the age of irradiated food is upon us. "There's a lot of nonsense that the market is just going to explode, that everyone is going to be out irradiating food," says Kennard H. Morganstern, founder of -- and now consultant to -- Radiation Dynamics Inc., a Monsanto subsidiary. "I don't believe that for a lot of reasons, the biggest of which is the profit motive. Until industry sees a way of improving its bottom line with this, it won't make the investment [in equipment]. And so far, the stimulation is coming from the people who make the cobalt, not the ones who'd be making money off the technology. I think it's going to happen, but I think it's going to happen slowly."

Another factor may be consumer resistance. The public tends to associate nuclear radiation with disasters rather than dining. Of course, the technology may yet inspire Three Mile Island hot dogs, or volumes of "Cooking for Armageddon," but it seems unlikely.

On the other hand, there is widespread interest in food irradiation in many countries, such as Holland, Israel, Japan, and South Africa. In the United States, moreover, there is no sign of visible, organized consumer resistance to the process -- at least, not yet. "I think it's one of those issues that's fallen between the cracks," says Pat Kelly of Public Voice for Food and Health Policy, a nonprofit, consumer research and advocacy organization. "No group knows if irradiated food is a nuclear issue or a consumer issue."

Then again, it may turn out to be a space issue. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has contracted for 60,000 irradiated dinners from Radiation Technology for consumption by our men and women in space. The United States thus maintains its lead in the race to be the first country to land hot chicken on another planet.