For years, residents have considered the massive nuclear power plant in the northeast corner of this poor, rural county as a tax-producing blessing.

Now, as safety questions about Virginia Electric and Power Co.'s nuclear operations have mounted, they're not so sure.

"We aren't panicking -- we know it won't explode. But we have doubts and concerns that we never had before," says country administrator Alfred G. Smith.

Those doubts have crystallized one floor above Smith's office in the Surry County Courthouse, about 150 miles southeast of Washington, where two former Vepco employes went on trial today on charges they attempted to sabotage the plant.

Lawyers for the defendants, William E. Kuykendall and James A. Merrill Jr., contend the two men damaged an estimated $1 million of nuclear fuel April 27 as an act of conscience to call public attention to unsafe conditions at the plant.

"Maybe they were totally of base in what they did," defense attorney Richard Ben-Veniste of Watergate fame said in preliminary arguments yesterday. ". . . (but) these men honestly and sincerely believe there was a great danger in this plant. They saw it each and every day."

In a letter sent today to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the two defendants repeated charges that the plant has leaked low-level radiation into the environment and exposed workers to excessive doses of radiation. They also have contended that safety, security and design flaws and sloppy operating practices at the plant are a danger to the public.

"We believe that a very serious accident is a real possibility -- an accident that would kill thousands of people and spread radioactive materials over a large part of Virginia," Kuykendall and Merrill wrote.

Vepco spokesmen have repeatedly and emphatically denied all those charges. But the denials don't help Alfred Smith sleep soundly at night, he says.

"This trial is going to have a hell of a lot of impact on this county for many, many years to come," Smith said. He is particularly concerned that the ease with which Kuykendall and Merrill -- both Vepco employes at the time -- entered and damaged the plant's sensitive fuel storage area raises major questions about plant security.

It is unclear if those questions will be addressed in this week's trial. Circuit Court Judge Ligon L. Jones ruled today that he would not allow the defendants to plead "self-defense" or "moral necessity" as a defense against the charges. Each defendant faces four felony counts and one misdemeanor charge and, if found guilty of all of them, could each face up to 51 years in jail.

Both men have pleaded innocent, despite admitting publicly that they sabotaged the atomic fuel.

Jones also rejected most of the defendants' requests to subpoena Vepco records on plant designs, repairs and previous safety incidents.

The judge's ruling could frustrate defense efforts to justify the defendants' action by showing the plant was unsafe. Defense attorneys also had planned to have at least one expert witness, former NRC staff member Robert Pollard, considered one of the foremost critics of nuclear energy, testify about conditions at the plant.

Whether defense attorneys can succeed in putting nuclear power on trial remains to be seen. But Surry County officials say they have already taken some steps in response to the sabotage including updating the county's emergency evacuation plan.

Officials also are considering a joint effort with Louisa County, home of Vepco's other nuclear plant at North Anna, to hire a nuclear power expert.

"I know so little about this," Smith said. "If Vepco calls me in the middle of the night and tells me something has happened at the plant, it means nothing to me. I need someone to call for advice."

But even if they could, Smith and other officials are far from ready to throw Vepco out.While most of its estimated 350 Surry employes commute from other localities, the company pays $1.7 million annyally in taxes -- about 38 percent of the total revenues collected in this county, whose population is about 60 percent black and whose other major source of income is peanut- and pig-farming.

Eight years ago the county became the first in Virginia to elect a black majority to its Board of Supervisors. The influx of revenues from Vepco has enabled that majority to fulfill campaign promises to upgrade the county's skeletal services.

"There's no question that the plant has been very, very good for Surry County." says Mary E. Jones, head of the county's planning and development department.

Today's trial, at which nine women and three men were chosen as jurors, drew few spectators. Some blamed the cold rainey weather, others the fact that today was a work day.

"People are a lot more concerned about getting their peanuts in before the frost," said an elderly man as he sipped coffee at the Surrey House Restaurant across from the courthouse this morning. "A lot of people here are not sure the trial is really any of their concern."