Nineteen years after the birth of the nulcear power industry, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission today got around to publishing security rules for transporting spent radioactive fuel, including the use of armed guards.

Antinuclear groups are already attacking the regulations as inadequate.

As recently as last November, the NRC staff recommended against imposing any new rules on the truckers and transport companies that haul nuclear leftovers. Until today, there have been no NRC rules on the trucks or trains themselves, on the need for guards or their training or for prior notification of officials, or on the routes the material would travel.

"Earlier studies essentially concluded there were no problems moving the stuff around, although they did have some qualifiers for urban areas," recalled William J. Dircks, director of the NRC's safeguards office.

Now, however, the new rules require the NRC to inspect and approve the route each shipment will take. Law enforcement agencies will have to know the shipment is coming. Escorts, at least one per trip, will have to be trained about the route, the cargo, the vehicle and emergency procedures, and they will have to contact authorities every two hours.

"The trip will take a little longer because of that . . . (and) two drivers will increase costs." said Bill Teer, vice president of Transnuclear Inc. The White Plains, N.Y., firm supplies shipping casks and handling services to companies that move nuclear materials.

It now costs about $1.25 per mile to transport spent fuel, or about $300,000 annually, according to NRC estimates. The new reguations are expected to double those figures.

The most controversial rules involve the routes. The trains or trucks must move on major lines and must make as few stops as possible, making sure the shipment is watched at each stop.

The route must "avoid, where practicable, heavily populated areas," and the guidelines that accompany the rules list more than 150 areas with populations of 100,000 or more that should be skirted by at least three miles.

If the shipment must go through urban areas, the rules say, two guards - probably local policemen - must go along. As a final touch, the vehicle must be "equipped with features that permit immobilization."

Early discussions of this idea featured dashboard buttons that would simultaneously blow out all the truck tires, explode the engine, launch a series of flares and set off a wailing siren. Actual measures are a secret.

All this is not enough, according to some antinuclear groups. "There's no reason why these shipments have to go through Norfolk except that the ships dock here, and they could dock closer to Savannah River" in South Carolina, said Fred Millar of Potomac Alliance, an antinuclear group.

The group is challenging the first route that NRC is trying to approve, the one that takes foreign shipments from Norfolk to the Department of Energy's Savannah River reprocessing and storage plant in Aiken, S.C.

"I think they may have a case," remarked the NRC's Dircks. The fights are just beginning.

Previously, Department of Transportation rules said the spent fuel should not be carried through major urban areas, but there was little or no enforcement.

This year, 220 shipments of spent fuel are expected to be moved from U.S. nuclear plants and from seaports to waste storage areas, all but six going by road. Foreign experimental plants sending used fuel back to the U.S. government under the Atoms for Peace program, account for 60 shipments, all going from Newport News, Va., to Savannah River.

As more nuclear power plants come on line and on-site storage areas fill up at each existing plant, U.S. facilities will account for more and more shipments. The number is expected to reach 1,530 by 1985, according to the NRC.

The new regulations will go into effect immediately, with utilities and industry having 90 days to change their equipment and training programs. The public has 45 days to comment.