Polly Kuykendall saya her husband, Bill, was a strong advocate of nuclear power when he went to work at the Virginia Electric and Power Company's Surry palnt four months ago.
"He'd served on the Nimitz [a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier], and he had nothing but praise for the Navy's nuclear program," she said in a telephone interview yesterday.
But Kuykendall, who lived in Newport News near the nuclear plant in Southeast Virginia, quickly decided that Vepco's operation wasn't as good as the Navy's. His wife said that he would complain to her that poorly trained workers were conducting vital procedures, that internal security was lax, and worst of all, that the company ignored complaints from workers.
So on April 27, he and another worker, James Merrill, poured 5 gallons of caustic sodium hydroxide on 62 new fuel rods at the Surry plant in an effort, they have said to alert the public to the plant's probelms.
They surrendered yesterday to Surry County authorities to face plant sabotage charges. If convicted, they each could receive up to 31 years in jail for causing what Vepco has said was $1 million in damage.
"I feel about it like Bill does," Polly Kuykendall said. "To be honest, I kind of wish I'd had something to do with it."
Merrill's wife, Debbie, also supports her husband, and she had paid a price. On Monday she was suspended from her job as a clerk for Atlantic Nuclear Services, a company doing construction work for Vepco outside the Surry plant.
The two men were released yesterday after pledging their homes to meet bonds of $21,000 on Kuykendall and $11,000 on Merrill.
After arranging bond, both men - who have been suspended from their Vepco jobs as operator trainees - repeated their charges that the Surry plant - about 130 miles south of Washington - is unsafe.
They claimed there had been "illegal and unaccounted for releases of radioactive material" at the plant and a "general lack of preventive maintenance."
Kuykendall, 26, said he received a cumulative dose of 15 millirems (a standard measure of radiation dosage) in three years with the Navy. At Surry, he said he had received about 2,000 millirems in less than four months. (Under federal regulations nuclear plant workers are allowed up to 3,000 millirems a quarter.)
"I knew there was something wrong 15 minutes after I started working there," he said.
Vepco Senior Vice President W. L. Proffitt said the charges by the two suspended employees were "as groundless as their acts were senseless. The Surry power station was safely built and is safely operated."
Proffitt said the allegations appeared designed to focus public attention away from what he called "the fundamental fact involved - that the two . . . are self-confessed felons who have been charged with criminal offenses."
Kuykendall said employees for several years had taken complaints to Donald Burke, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's on-site inspector at Surry. He said Burke had helped correct some specific problems but had no authority to order a general overhaul of plant procedures.
Burke could not be reached for comment yesterday.
NRC regional investigator David McGuire said he planned to discuss safety with Kuykendall and Merrill once the FBI completes its investigation of the sabotage incident.
Kuykendall said he and Merrill had decided to take drastic action only after deciding it was the only way to draw public attention to the plant's problems.
"It's important to understand that I'm not the kind of guy who believes in damaging someones else's property," he said. CAPTION: Picture, James Merrill, left, and Bill Kuykendall at news conference on Hog Island, Va. AP