The idea that no one will survive a nuclear war is "simply nonsense," said Richard E. Sincere Jr. Saturday to leading national defense strategists meeting in Salt Lake City.

"With or without defenses against nuclear weapons, many millions of people in this country and around the globe will survive any level of nuclear conflict that is imaginable, given current levels of armaments," said Sincere, a research associate at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.Sincere spoke on the moral and legal aspects of civil defense at the American Civil Defense Association annual seminar at the Airport Hilton in Salt Lake. Even a full-scale war between Russia and the United States would have limited effects and would not extinguish the human race, he said.

"If the worst should happen, the question of how to deal with survivors would remain compelling," he said, adding that experts estimate that even with a surprise attack against the United States - with no civil defense preparations - 60 to 80 million people would survive unharmed and many others would survive with injuries and sickness.

"We must direct our energies, wisdom and compassion toward preparations for treating the sick and injured, establishing law and order, providing food and shelter and burying the dead." Such civil defense preparations have been ignored by the government, said Sincere.

Once it is agreed that nuclear war is survivable, deterrence policies must match that fact. If deterrence based on "an ever-growing destructive force" is the only alternative, "What do we do if deterrence fails?" he said.

"The U.S. government has failed to come to grips with the horrifying prospect of what to do if deterrence fails," Sincere said. "If the primary purpose of strategic defense initiative, referred to as SDI, is to stop nuclear warheads before they reach American territory, the primary purpose of civil defense is to save lives and ameliorate suffering if active strategic defenses fail to provide a 100 percent effective anti-nuclear umbrella."

Sincere said a commitment to civil defense manifests the highest human virtues. There has always been a demand to protect human life and a defense based solely on the deployment of offensive weapons is "morally reprehensible," he said.

"An effective and credible civil defense program will enhance crisis stability, increase perceptions of national resolve and improve our deterrent stance," he said. "Proponents of the view that `civil defense makes nuclear war more likely' are hard-pressed to prove their assertion."

SDI has been a major focus of public discussion since it was announced in 1983, but civil defense has hardly been discussed, Sincere said. The budget request for civil defense in fiscal 1989 is $160 million, which is less than 67 cents per American citizen. Per capita appropriations in Switzerland are $40 and in the Soviet Union are $30.

"These countries have recognized the moral and strategic advantages that accrue from comprehensive civil defense programs," he said. "Blinded by the brightness of exotic strategic defense technologies, the government has permitted mundane programs like civil defense to become orphans.

"This constitutes ethical blindness, fiscal imprudence and strategic shortsightedness."