The conference here yesterday on the realities of nuclear war didn't turn out exactly the way its pro-disarmament sponsors and most of the invited audience had expected.

Two-thirds of the way through the all-day proceedings, Paul Newman, the actor who had helped put the affair together, declared "it is still amazing to me that a gathering such as this would attack an irrational subject in such a rational way. I'm surprised people are not angrier... we are playing games with the destruction of the planet."

Newman's remarks were triggered by the rapt attention given a panel of former military men who coolly described various ways in which a nuclear war would be fought.

As the conference ended, I.F. Stone, a journalist and arms control advocate, charged that the conference may be used as an opening wedge in a new civil defense program.

Preceding Stone's remark had been a graphic presentation of the devastation that would result from a nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union by Professor Henry W. Kendall of Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He talked not only of the destruction of cities and death to the people exposed to radiation but also of long-term effects of depletion of the ozone layer in the atmosphere.

"For years," Kendall said, "people would not be able to work unswathed out of doors" because the ultraviolet rays from the sun would come through where the ozone once kept them out.

Bardyl R. Tirana, the director of the Defense Civil Preparedness Agency, followed Kendall and made his regular pitch for some effort to save people in cities from a nuclear attack by implementing a modest crisis relocation program.

Despite hostile and sometimes sarcastic questions, Tirana held to his position that some civil defense planning effort, even though not totally effective, was better than nothing.

Perhaps the high point of the conference for the sponsors was an emotional speech by Sen. John C. Culver (D-Iowa).

Although it was designed to keynote the affair, the talk came after the panel presentations had concluded because Culver had been delayed in Iowa by a snowstorm.

Culver attacked as a "dangerous illusion" the idea "that any nation can win an all-out nuclear war."

He also said "we don't know about the deadly consequences of nuclear war," citing miscalculations in the size of test explosions and the errors involved in permitting natives to return to the nuclear test grounds at Bikini Island before the land was safe for habitation.

Culver also outlined the bizarre situation that would exist after a fullscale nuclear war began:

"Short of suicide," Culver asked, "who would surrender? To whom? How would the message be sent? Who would believe an offer to surrender in the absence of certainty that no weapons remained?"

Both Culver and earlier panel members raised questions about the reliability of strategic nuclear weapons -- particularly for a nation planning a first strike.

Citing recently disclosed problems that had occurred in the 1960s with the Polaris missile, Culver asked, "Can [an attacking leader] be sure that all his weapons will work as planned, that missiles will fire, remain on target and not destroy other attacking warheads through fratricide?"

Retired admiral John T. Hayward, a former president of the Naval War College, said he didn't expect that all the warheads "would arrive on target... there are going to be a lot of failures."

Hayward and other military panelists agreed with Herbert Scoville Jr., of the Arms Control Association, that a Soviet first strike against U.S. missiles is unlikely. But the military men said that situation stemmed from our continuing development of new missiles while the disarmament proponents saw that situation as reason to cut back on weapons.