In all the furor over the crisis in the Persian Gulf and the federal budget fiasco in Washington, the public seems to be overlooking the significance of an important new development.

It's a development that eventually could make America less dependent on foreign sources of fuel and, consequently, less vulnerable to the vicissitudes of the chronically unstable Middle East.Even so, this development won't achieve its full potential until Americans start basing their energy policy more on facts than on emotion.

What exactly is this development?

Merely the recent completion of the most comprehensive study ever undertaken of the incidence of cancer among people living near nuclear power plants.

After examining all deaths from 16 types of cancer occurring from 1950 to 1984 in 107 counties in close proximity to 62 commercial and defense-related nuclear facilities across the country, the National Cancer Institute confirmed what most scientists and medical specialists have been saying all along:

There is no evidence of increased risk of cancer among people living near nuclear power plants.

This conclusion is in line with another study by Columbia University, which found no evidence of increased cancer rates attributable to the 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant.

Consider another pertinent fact: In more than four decades, the only Americans to die in the commercial generation of nuclear energy have been workers inside the power plants - and these few deaths have been mostly attributable to accidents having nothing to do with radiation.

The lesson should be clear: America needs to get over its collective phobia about nuclear power plants and start building more of them.

But that won't happen until the public stops exaggerating the risks and starts focusing on the benefits of nuclear power. And it won't happen until Washington starts exercising the leadership needed to keep the foes of nuclear power from tying up N-power projects with needlessly prolonged appeals in the already overloaded federal courts.