Fifteen years ago, the United States was the only supplier of enriched uranium to nuclear power plants in the non-communist world. In the past three years, the U.S. share of the market has fallen to 45 percent and much of the lost business was right here in America. What really hurts is that it is the Soviet Union that has captured most of the market.

The U.S. Energy Department runs the nation's only two uranium-enrichment plants in Ohio and Kentucky, so the lost sales have cost the government more than $170 million. Those losses could run as high as $1.7 billion in the next nine years unless something changes.The Soviets have excess capacity for making enriched uranium and need the foreign currency. So they cut their prices as much as 50 percent below the U.S. figure. As a result, many American utilities have started buying from Moscow, mostly through third-party brokers.

In addition, many nations are uncertain about the reliability of U.S. supplies and have turned to the Soviets, who place fewer restrictions on the use of their enriched uranium.

Fearing U.S. dependence on Soviet supplies, some members of Congress are backing legislation that would prohibit U.S. utilities from buying enriched Soviet uranium. But instead of simply building a wall, why not meet the Soviet challenge with free market competition?

The Bush administration already is readying a proposal to take the uranium enrichment business out of the Energy Department and put it in the hands of a quasi-independent government corporation. That would provide more flexibility and competitiveness. It should be done.

Also, the United States has a new technology for enriching uranium that would enable America to compete with the lower Soviet price. However, it will take about $500 million by 1991 to complete the process.

That seems like a good investment, even in a cramped budget, if it would save the loss of $1.7 billion in sales by the late 1990s.