In nominating retired Adm. James D. Watkins as Secretary of Energy, President-elect Bush has done more than just fill the last opening in his Cabinet.

He has also avoided some potentially serious political traps while putting the emphasis of the new administration where it belongs - on nuclear energy rather than on traditional sources of fuel.In making this selection, Bush was torn between demands that the energy post be filled with someone having a background in oil and gas, and opposing demands that the job go to someone familiar with non-conventional energy sources.

If Bush had picked someone favored by the oil and gas industry, the President-elect would have left himself open to accusations refusing to recognize the changing nature of America's challenges on the energy front and of putting short-sighted politics ahead of the long-range public interest.

Those accusations would have been especially acute if Bush had filled the energy post with a fellow Texan.

Instead, he wisely chose retired Adm. Watkins, a California native residing in Washington who has a strong background in the Navy's nuclear program. An able, conscientious officer and a stickler for detail, the 61-year-old Watkins is a former chief of naval operations and commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. He once served as manager of naval reactors for the old Atomic Energy Commission.

That background should prove useful in few of the demanding challenges facing the Department of Energy in the nuclear field.

The department must deal with the nation's decrepit nuclear weapons plants, which it administers for the Pentagon. The weapons plants, dating from the 1950's, are not only in disrepair but also are plagued by environmental problems. As a result, key facilities are shut down, and repair and cleanup costs have been estimated to exceed $100 billion.

The DOE also must find permanent and safe repositories for the mountains of radioactive wastes now piling up at temporary storage sites across the nation.

In addition, the DOE is going to be at the center of environmental controversies involving the problem of global warming, the so-called "greenhouse effect." Any moves to handle that problem, which President-elect Bush has said will be a priority of the new administration, will require changes in the way the U.S. uses energy - changes that are bound to be hotly disputed.

Such challenges clearly require a take-charge type of leadership at the Department of Energy - which is exactly the type of leadership that Adm. Watkins is said to have.