Energy Secretary James D. Watkins did not like some of the people he got stuck with when he took office in 1989. The crew assigned to monitor the safety of nuclear weapons plants had been producing unreliably rosy information.

Watkins, a nuclear buff from his days as an admiral in the nuclear Navy, is no raving environmentalist when it comes to nuclear issues. But even he was skeptical enough about the people he inherited from the Reagan administration that he made some changes.

Watkins recruited his own band of faithfuls, a team of sleuths to unearth chronic safety risks at nuclear weapons plants. It is one of the few encouraging moves Watkins has made to get a handle on nuclear safety.

The Energy Department supervises the nation's nuclear weapons plants run by private contractors. At the tail end of the Reagan administration reports surfaced of lax safety precautions, poor management, inadequate training and poor equipment throughout the network of 17 plants. Many of the facilities had to be shut down.

Watkins formed an Office of Nuclear Safety and made it responsible for protecting the public and the nuclear plant workers from radioactive materials.

Before Watkins created the team, he went to Congress and testified that some of the people he had inherited from the previous administration had no technical skills to supervise weapons plant operations. He complained that the lack of expertise made it difficult for him to solve the safety problems at the plants. Watkins said he was forced to involve himself in every decision because he was getting unreliably optimistic information from his staff.

Watkins's new safety office is headed by Steve Blush, formerly with the National Academy of Sciences. Congressional sources who oversee the Energy Department say Blush was a good choice. Under his leadership, the National Academy of Sciences produced a report that was highly critical of safety in the nuclear weapons plant complex.

Blush's nuclear safety office has started taking some swings. The investigators found that Energy Department contractors knew for nearly 13 years about a hydrogen buildup in nuclear waste tanks at the Hanford plant in Washington state and failed to take action. The findings, submitted to a Senate panel headed by John Glenn (D-Ohio), said that the risk of an explosion at Hanford was one of the biggest problems facing the Energy Department.

The safety problems have not gone away under Watkins. Employees are still exposed needlessly to radiation. Security checks have been inadequate. Serious crimes, including drug dealing and theft of classified documents, are all too common at nuclear weapons plants. So Blush's staff has its work cut out.

And Watkins has a lot of work to do to restore the credibility of the Energy Department when it comes to nuclear safety. Congressional overseers complain that some of Watkins's aides are too stingy about sharing information with Congress on nuclear safety issues. And there is some indication that Watkins lets aggressive staffers run all over him.