The search for culprits in the Alaskan oil spill is on. It would be nice, wouldn't it, if we could blame this, too, on drugs. Or alcohol.

It is likely, though, that the cause will be traced to some unsatisfying combination of ordinary human failings, like negligence, inexperience and sloth.But whatever the proximal cause of the spill, the underlying cause is obvious. No investigation is needed.

Every year, 1.2 billion tons of oil cross the seas in tankers. And since navigation is a human endeavor, there will always be human error. Oil spills are an utterly predictable cost of doing business.

Tankers and their crew have a way of cracking up and running aground. The more oil needs importing, the more tankers must sail, the more chance for catastrophe.

We do not know where or when the spills will be. But we know that there will be spills.

Just as we know that if we burn enough coal, we will kill lakes and forests, though we can't say exactly which ones. That is the cost of doing business in coal.

And we know that burning oil and coal and other fossil fuels floods the atmosphere with carbon dioxide and raises global temperatures. We do not know exactly when or how great it will be, but the warming is predictable.

Which is why the consternation and finger-pointing that invariably accompany any of these ecological disasters is unseemly.

The most likely consequence of the Valdez oil spill will be agitation to prevent further oil exploration on Alaska's North Slope.

As if reducing supply is going to reduce demand. As if any oil not shipped from Valdez to Seattle is not simply going to be replaced by oil shipped from, say, Venezuela to Houston. The Caribbean has beaches as pollutable as Alaska. The cure will cure nothing.

Nor will stringing up a ship's captain and his third mate. The way to reduce the risk of future oil spills is to use less - and thus ship less - oil. And there are two ways of doing that: conservation and substitution.

You can conserve with strict auto-fuel-efficiency standards (45 percent of American oil is burned in motor vehicles) which the last administration rolled back to no great outcry.

You can also conserve with a gas tax, to which this administration has deep theological objections. Fuel-efficiency standards marginally raise the price of cars. A gas tax marginally raises the price of running them. We can't have that.

What we have instead is an explosion of oil imports. In January, the United States imported 45 percent of its oil (in 1985 the figure was 27 percent), more than in the catastrophic oil year of 1979.

The other way to cut down on oil consumption, and thus oil transport and thus oil disasters, is by substitution. And that means nuclear power. But just as Americans do not want to pay a few extra pennies for gas, they refuse to run the one in a zillion chance of getting killed in a nuclear-power accident like Three Mile Island.

History has its little jokes. The current one is that the Valdez spill, the worst oil disaster in American history, occurred almost precisely 10 years to the day after Three Mile Island, the nuclear disaster that killed no one. The resulting panic, however, essentially doomed American nuclear power.

And since Americans will not stop turning on the lights and the air conditioning, the demise of American nuclear power has made inevitable an increase in oil and coal use.

Nuclear energy is not directly substitutable for, say, gasoline. But every kilowatt of nuclear power forgone must be generated some other way, overwhelmingly by burning fossil fuels.

The opposition to nuclear power is fueled by risk aversion. But the idea that by burning coal and oil instead we are reducing risk is an example of willful myopia.

The ecological risks of coal and oil are immense. They are, however, not always immediately visible. They are shunted far away, to the atmosphere, to Alaska, to future "greenhoused" generations - anywhere but my backyard.

A country that, for no better reason than the fear of fear itself, kills a $5 billion modern and safe nuclear plant in Shoreham, Long Island, before it has produced a watt of usable energy has no right to complain when its Alaskan shoreline is devastated by a tanker bringing portable fuel from elsewhere.

The lamentations rise for the fish and fowl and future of Prince William Sound. The blame-laying and the breast-beating has begun. They miss the point.

The Valdez disaster represents America's attempt to export risk. The only reason we are now so upset is that this time we did not export it quite far enough.