Two federal Agencies have been quietly negotiating with Virginia Electric and Power Company to ship one of the damaged and highly radioactive steam generators from the utility's Surry nuclear plant to the West Coast for research.

Anti-nuclear activists, who were leaked the plan earlier this week, said yesterday they feared that shipment of the 220-ton generator could pose a hazard to public health and safety. They say the generator contains more than three times the amount of radiation considered safe for shipment under federal Department of Transportation rules.

Spokesmen for the Department of Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission confirmed their plans yesterday. They are preparing to ship one of the six generators Vepco is removing from the plant to a DOE research facility in Richland, Wash. They say the shipment by sea, which would cost about $1 million and take 40 to 50 days, could begin as early as November.

The agencies want to study the corrosion that has caused leaks in as much as 25 percent of the 40 miles of pipes in each generator and forced their replacement at a total cost to the utility of about $230 million. At least 12 other nuclear plants have similar problems and 27 others are susceptible, according to the NRC.

DOE spokesman Carl Eifert said the generator, which would be shipped by barge down the James River through the heavily populated Tidewater area, would be shielded by 50 tons of lead and would not pose a health hazard. From the James River, the generator will be shipped through the Panama Canal and along the West Coast.

But Fred Millar, spokesman for the Potomac Alliance, a District of Columbia-based anti-nuclear group, challenged the view that there is no health hazard. "If it's so safe, why not ship it overland by train?" Millar asked.

Vepco spokesman Dennis Hedgepeth said the company has been discussing turning over one of the Westinghouse-designed generators to the federal agencies for at least a year and a half. Millar charged the negotiations had been kept secret by the agencies in order to avoid scrutiny of the shipment by critics.

DOE's Eifert denied Millar's charge, saying the plan would have been made public next month in the Federal Register when a DOE contractor plans to apply to the Department of Transportation for an exemption that would allow the shipment.