The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is belatedly drafting new rules to protect workers who blow the whistle on safety problems and incompetence by officials at nuclear power plants.

But the NRC's reputation for blowing the whistle on whistle blowers -- exposing them to dismissal or other retaliation by disclosing their identities -- is so widely accepted that the commission's latest assurances have not quelled suspicion among critics.

Lawyer Billie Garde of the Government Accountability Project, a public interest group devoted to protecting whistle blowers, is so dubious about the commission's claims of good faith that she refuses to testify about some 500 allegations of deficiencies at the South Texas nuclear power plant near Houston. She is resisting an NRC subpoena to tell what she knows because she's afraid she will be forced to name her informants at the plant, subjecting them to possible reprisal.

Garde told our associate Stewart Harris that most of the plant workers and NRC employes who talked to her did so only with the explicit understanding that they would not be identified.

Their fears of retaliation are understandable; NRC officials in Texas have been accused of breaching confidentiality in the past. Charles Atchison, a worker at the Comanche Peak nuclear plant near Dallas, was fired after the NRC broke its promise to him and revealed that he was the source of information about defective welds at the plant. Indeed, according to an NRC internal investigative report, commission officials broke their pledge of protection on three occasions.

The last breach occurred as Atchison was walking out of the plant moments after he was fired in April 1982. The NRC's senior resident inspector, Robert G. Taylor, was overheard to say, "There goes your 1980 alleger," according to the NRC report. The Labor Department subsequently overturned Atchison's firing as "improper," according to NRC files.

More recently, the targets of an internal NRC investigation were given copies of the investigators' highly critical report, which identified their accusers either by name or by the context of the information provided.

The frantic whistle blowers called NRC investigator George Mulley to protest their betrayal. "Most of these individuals felt that the distribution {to targeted officials} was done purposely to expose them to possible future retaliation," Mulley testified at a Governmental Affairs subcommittee hearing chaired by Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio.).

Mulley was exasperated by the agency decision to distribute copies of the report to the targets of the investigation. But a commission official told us that the informants were not promised confidentiality, and said internal reports are often distributed to regional offices. But sources said such reports would normally go to regional supervisors, not to subjects of the investigation.

Footnote: NRC officials say current commission policy is that informants' names will be available only on a need-to-know basis. This, they said, means that officials should avoid using whistle blowers' names in documents or discussions.