It is not a case that most defense attorneys would relish.

The two defendants are unemployed and cannot afford legal fees. They have admitted publicly and repeatedly to the basic act for which they stand trial. The judge has ruled out their main legal defense of "moral necessity."

Still, attorneys Maurice Nessen of New York and Richard Ben-Veniste of Washington have managed to make a case for two former Surry nuclear plant employes charged with destroying more than $800,000 in fuel rods at the plant, owned and operated by the Virginia Electric and Power Co.

Through courtroom strategy and occasional theatrics, the two lawyers have doggedly pounded home to the jury their basic contention that defendants William E. Kuykendall and James A. Merrill Jr. acted out of conscience to protest unsafe plant conditions. And they won a major victory Friday when the presiding judge threw out four or five charges against the men.

As Ben-Veniste told the jurors in his opening statement, "No matter how thin you make the pancake, it's still got two sides."

In what is considered to be the first trial involving extensive sabotage by nuclear plant employes, the opposing attorneys are nearly as interesting as the case itself.

Both defense attorneys are flamboyant trial lawyers with a flair for famous cases. Ben-Veniste, 36, gained fame as chief assistant to Watergate prosecutor Leon Jaworski. Nessen, 52, author of two published novels, specializes in antitrust cases but also has handled such famous clients as novelist Clifford Irving.

Their experience is in sharp contrast to that of prosecutor Gammiel G. Poindexter, 35, the Surry County commonwealth's attorney who in 1975 became the first black ever elected to that office in Virginia, and who is the only woman currently serving in such a post statewide. She is unopposed for re-election to another four-year term this November.

As part-time prosecutor in this rural, backwoods county of 6,100, 125 miles south of Washington, Poindexter has had few criminal cases to try and none that has attracted the publicity of this trial. Her approach has been low-key, treating the trial as a more-or-less routine felony case and avoiding comment to the press.

But she was clearly nervous during her opening statement, at one point telling jurors that the defendants had searched for "a five-bucket gallon" to carry the caustic soda they used to damage the fuel.

Nevertheless, because of the defendants' statements, Poindexter is expected by most observers to be the victor when the jury of nine women and three men returns a verdict next week.

She is being assisted by H. Woodrow Crook Jr., a 12-year veteran prosecutor who is commonwealth's attorney in neighboring Isle of Wight County. It is Crook who has fenced most in court with Ben-Veniste and Nessen, making objections whenever the defense has attempted to interject plant safety issues into the questioning of prosecution witnesses.

Almost all of those objections have been sustained by Circuit Court Judge Ligon L. Jones, 62, a nearby Hopewell, who has been a state judge for 17 years and has presided over hundreds of criminal trials in Surry, four other counties and two cities.

Jones has at times lost patience with the defense attorneys, whose constant objections and detailed questioning of witnesses on seemingly trivial matters have helped prolong a trail that was originally expected to conclude today but will be extended into next week.

The judge has twice threatened Nessen -- a rumpled, scholarly looking man who is fond of bow ties and occasional courtroom outbursts -- with contempt of court.

"I'm enjoying this case," Jones told a reporter during a lunch break, "but I'm trying to keep thins under control. Some of the attorneys here can be rather difficult but we do have a nice jail if we need one."

There are only about a half-dozen attorneys in this county. One of them, John C. Baker, who was narrowly defeated by Poindexter in the election four years ago, is a member of the defense team.

Both Nessen and Ben-Veniste volunteered their services in this case. So has the defense's expert witness, Robert Pollard of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a Washington antinuclear group.

Ben-Veniste says he even sees some parallels to Watergate. "Essentially," he said before the trial began, "Vepco has been guilty of abuse of power."

Ben-Veniste and Nessen cheerfully plod on, both clearly enjoying their roles here and the public attention focused on this case.

The defense calculates that total expenses will amount to at least $10,000. So far, an effort to raise a defense fund has been unsuccessful.