The Department of Energy's new program to determine the possible effects of low-level radiation on the health of some 500,000 former employes at its nuclear facilities has been criticized as "somewhat a defensive mechanism response," by James L. Liverman, the acting assistant secretary of energy who has overall supervision of the program.

Liverman, in an interview Thursday, said he believes the program unveiled late Tuesday to a House subcommittee also might set an unwanted precedent "for occupational health follow-ups for other industries."

He suggested private employers in other fields may someday be required to keep track of former employes to determine if occupational hazards affect their health in later life.

Under the new program, DOE would attmept to track down individuals who worked with nuclear material at one time or another since 1947 at some 40 government facilities around the country.

One purpose would be to determine how many of the estimated 500,000 former employes have died of leukemia or other cancers. From those findings Liverman said he hopes scientists might better determine the relationship, if any, between cancer and low-level radiation exposures now considered safe.

An effort also will be made to locate some 3,000 former employes who received radiation doses totaling five rads or more in a single year. Five rads is the maximum dose permitted by government standards.

This group would be sent a medical questionaire and offered a free medical examiniation, Liverman said.

DOE's program was triggered by hearings before the House subcommittee on Health and Environment chaired by Rep. Paul Rogers.(D-Fla.)

One subcommittee session focused on a 12-year study of deceased workers at DOE's Hanford, Wash., nuclear facilities. The original director of that study Dr. Thomas Mancuso, released findings in 1976 which showed there was a six percent increase in certain cancers above the normal national average there was a increase in certain cancers among the workers of six percent more than the national average.

DOE officials, including Liverman, were critical of Mancuso's findings. In a letter to a Senate committee in October 1977. Liverman called the Mancuso report the "result of inappropriate use of statistical mehtodology."

He repeated that criticism at the Rogers subcommittee's Feb. 8 hearing.

By Feb. 28, however Liverman had changed his stand saying the Mancuso findings "appear to demonstrate adverse effects on the health of workers."

"These result," Liverman went on to say, "if accepted at face value raise serious concern about the adequacy of exposure standards."

Present standards are based in large part on information developed about low-level radiation from the atomic bomb casualties at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II.

The Mancuso study, begun in 1964, was to have covered former workers at the Hanford and the Oak Ridge, Tenn., facilities. Before Mancuso had time to complete the Oak Ridge portion of his work, his contract was concluded and the work passed on last year to two other researchers.

Liverman was the person who ordered an end to the Mancuso's contract. His desision, however, was first made in 1975, a year before Mancuso came up with his critical data.

Ironically, what Liverman is now proposing to do is to expand to all DOE facilities the work Mancuso began.

Dr. Walter Weyzen, a Liverman deputy who also has been sharply critical of Mancuso, is now charged with organizing the new national study.

Weyzen cautioned that the project will take months just to design and "years to complete."

He pointed out that Mancuso's Hanford study covered just 8,000 former workers, took 12 years and cost almost $6 million.

The new effort will be "very complicated, and time-consuming." Weyzen said, "and we must find the money to do it."