Whistle-blowers at nuclear power plants are supposed to be a specially protected species, because Congress doesn't want unreported safety lapses causing a Three Mile Island-type accident -- or a Chernobyl-like disaster.

But when Alan Young, a welder at the Philadelphia Electric Co. Peach Bottom nuclear plant in southeastern Pennsylvania, told the Nuclear Regulatory Commission about workers' overexposure to radiation, he was fired. The NRC has done nothing for Young, beyond confirming his complaints, and the Labor Department appears to have grown tired of defending him.

As a result, Young has been blacklisted by the utility company and cannot work at the Peach Bottom plant. At last count, he had been fired by four Peach Bottom contractors because of his whistle-blowing and Philadelphia Electric's refusal to give him a security clearance.

Young's depressing saga began in June 1983, when he went to the NRC with information that workers welding pipes at Peach Bottom were inadequately protected from excessive radiation. The welders were putting Band-Aid-like strips around the pipes to keep radioactive water from leaking. Each hour they were exposed to the equivalent of five chest X-rays, and in eight days they were "burned out" -- having soaked up so much radiation that they could not legally be exposed to any more for a few months, Young reported.

The contractor fired Young after his complaint to the NRC, but a Labor Department review board found in his favor. He was given $11,000 in back pay and a promise that there would be no future discrimination against him. An NRC report stated, "Several deficiencies were identified and commitments were made by {Philadelphia Electric} management to improve practices."

Young was hired by another Peach Bottom contractor in 1984, but again found that welders were getting too much radiation. Again he was fired, and again the Labor Department found that he was right. In August 1985, Young was hired by a third Peach Bottom contractor -- and fired two hours later because Philadelphia Electric refused to grant him security clearance. Young was refused security clearance again last October at Peach Bottom, even though he had obtained clearance to work at Three Mile Island.

The Labor Department ordered Philadelphia Electric to give Young his job back and to pay him back wages and compensatory damages. The company was ordered further to expunge from its records "any references or indications characterizing Mr. Young's action or behavior as being inappropriate in this matter."

Philadelphia Electric has appealed the Labor Department decision, but the case has been stalled for more than six months. Meanwhile, Young was hired by another Peach Bottom contractor -- and apparently laid off because Philadelphia Electric refused him security clearance.

Footnote: Philadelphia Electric spokesman Neil McDermott said Young was laid off the last time as part of a "reduction in force" that included 38 employes. McDermott also denied that Young was punished for his whistle-blowing activities.