Officials of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission clashed with Sen. Gary W. Hart (D-Colo.) at a Senate hearing yesterday over whether the commission has the proper attitude toward safeguarding the public interest in its own internal rules and regulations.

Three commission staff members told Hart's subcommittee on nuclear regulation that NRC procedures have been charged since 1973, when there was a delay in public disclosure that a geological fault had been discovered under nuclear power plant being built by the Virgina Elctric and Power Co. on the North Anna, about 70 miles southwest of Washington. Faults are common sites of earthquakes.

"In light of this issue, reports of lost nuclear material and accidents involving shipment of nuclear material, it is no wonder that the American people are questioning how well they are being protected," Hart said.

Hart said he was "very disturbed" by the way the NRC officials were "referring to 1973 as if it were the Dark Ages . . . We may now be doing things (so) that in 1961, your successors will be sitting here saying that back in '77 we didn't really understand these things and have changed the procedures."

NRC Chairman Joseph M. Hendrie responded that if current NRC decisions stand up as well as those of 1973, "it will be a good, solid safety record."

NRC operations director Lee V. Gosick related that new information or allegations of problems received in 1972 or 1973 "was first evaluated by the staff" before superiors or the NRC's Atomic Safety and Licensing Board were informed. He cited instances of problems that had arisen at plants in Massachusetts and North Carolina that were not immediately made public. This lack of immediate disclosure caused some public furor.

The North Anna case was an example, the NRC officials agreed, of another case in which things should have moved faster. Gossick said documents placed in the NRC's obscure "public documents room" are now also werved to all registered parties to a pending license case. There are new staff procedures for recording information and reports themselves are more comprehensive, he said.

The fact that the fault under the North Anna plant turned out to be judged inactive and not dangerous. Hart said, was irrelevant, even though that finding is actively disputed by the plant's opponents. "In these cases procedure may have everything to do with substance . . . looking back and saying (the delay in public disclosure) did not turn out to be crucial completely avoids the issue."