In the summer of 1974, Dr. Samuel Milham of the Washington State Public Health Service completed a study of all deaths in the state and determined that there were excessive cancer fatalities among the workers exposed to low-level radiation at the U.S. government's nuclear facilities at Hanford, Wash.

The Milham study ran counter to the established government position that present federal exposure standards for low-level radiation are safe --a position that recently has come under increasing attack as additional studies surface.

Upon learning of Milham's conclusions, officials at the Energy Research and Development Administration, which supervised Hanford, became concerned about the public impact of the study.

They first tried to convince Milham that he should not publish the results of his study. When he did, in an obscure journal, ERDA officials tried to get Dr. Thomas Mancuso of the University of Pittsburgh, their contract researcher on the Hanford workers' health, to sign a news release saying his 10-year study had turned up no excess of cancer cases. Mancuso refused.

ERDA then hired another research organization to analyze Milham's statistics to see if another result could be determined. It did.

In 1975, Mancuso was told his study contract was to be transferred to ERDA's Oak Ridge facility for administrative reasons.

One year later, in the summer of 1976, Mancuso came up with results similar to Milham's. Workers at the Hanford facilities, according to Mancuso, exposed to low levels of radiation showed a 6 per cent greater level of cancer than that found in the general population.

ERDA officials in 1976 worked to delay Mancuso's publication of his results. They developed criticisms of the findings and circulated then among the scientific community.

In December, 1977, however, Mancuso and his two colleagues, Dr. Alice Stewart and Dr. George Kneale, published their findings in Health Physics, the premier journal in the occupational radiation field.

Recently, ERDA's successor agency, the Department of Energy, started an inspector general's investigation to establish why Mancuso was dropped, as of this year, as the chief government-supported researcher into the long-term health of Hanford and Oak Ridge nuclear facility workers.

Behind the Milham and Mancuso controversies is the bitter fight that has raged for years within the scientific community over the possible long-term cancer-causing effects of low-level radiation.

Those who believe the safety level in current government standards is too lax, have claimed that scientific papers have been censored by the government and federal research grants canceled to suppress additional criticism.

Federal officials and their supporters counter that critical findings have come from poor-research techniques or self-promotion by groups and individuals.

A new National Academy of Sciences panel has been convened to take another look at the government low-level standard. The current battle will be carried on before that body.

It has also reached the courts.

In Las Vegas, two widows have filed suit against the government, claiming that their husbands died of leukemia as the result of radiation they received in December 1970, when a nuclear underground test called Baneberry vented and sent fallout into the air.

The two men, guards, were among 100 persons exposed at a camp near the test site. Another guard also recently died of leukemia.

In the Baneberry case, the government plans to produce scientific witnesses who say the dose received was too low to produce leukemia. The widows have as their chief witness Dr. Shields Warren, former director of the Atomic Energy Commission Division of Biology and Medicine, who will say the dose could have caused the disease. Warren was also for eight years U.S. representative to the U.N. Scientific Committee on the Effects of Nuclear Radiation.

The battle over the standards will also be played out before the House Subcommittee on Health and the Environment, which on Jan. 23 plans to begin a series of hearings on low-level radiation.

One specific subject for inquiry will be the Mancuso study.

Another area will be Smoky, the 1957 nuclear weapon test in Nevada where the Army marched GIs in the vicinity of ground zero within two hours after the 44-kiloton shot (three times that of Hiroshima) was detonated.

One of the six leukemia cases already found among Smoky's 2,235 Army participants is a constituent of Rep. Tim Lee Carter (R-Ky.), ranking minority member of the subcommittee, headed by Paul G. Rogers (D-Fla.).

A key witness at the hearing is expected to be Dr. Karl Z. Morgan, now a professor at Georgia Tech but for more than 25 years the director of the Health Physics Division at the government's Oak Ridge nuclear facility.

A man of international reputation in the radiation health field, Morgan has worked from the start of the nation's atomic bomb program on the dangers of cancer from radioactive material, particularly plutonium.

Morgan is no stranger to the government's alleged penchant for pressuring its critics in the radiation field.

In the summer of 1971, Morgan, still Oak Ridge's director of health physics, drafted a paper critical of the health dangers he saw in the fast breeder nuclear reactor. The paper was to be delivered to an International Atomic Energy Agency conference in Germany.

However, his AEC Superiors at Oak Ridge censored material critical of the breeder reactor and the plutonium it used, and sent the new version to Germany with instructions to Morgan that he was to retrieve the earlier copies and deliver their version.

Morgan complied, not wanting, he said recently, to cause a stir in his last years at the agency.

Now, looking back upon the episode, Morgan says there is a danger in "pressures on research from funding agencies that can be brought to bear against those who disagree."

He has become a major combatant in the Manicuso affair. It was a Morgan letter to Energy Secretary James R. Schlesinger Jr. questioning Manicuso's dismissed that reportedly led to the current inspector general investigation.

For Morgan, the "censorship" involved in the Manicuso case is more important than the findings of the study itself.