While Congress was moving this fall to put new restrictions on cross-country movement of nuclear waste, another branch of government was moving in a different direction.

Keeping it as low-key as possible, the Department of Energy dispatched 18 truckloads of highly radioactive, spent nuclear fuel from Florida to a test storage site in Nevada.

The department has made many other such shipments in the past. What made this one different were these points:

For the first time, and possibly as a prelude to more of the same in the future, DOE has become involved in transporting commercial nuclear fuel that ordinarily is under control of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

DOE lawyers came up with rationale to allow the agency to make the shipment under its own rules rather than the NRC's, which are more restrictive.

DOE officials rejected internal staff advice to publicize the shipments and to inform officials of states through which they would pass, on the ground that it was "unnecessary and costly."

An Ohio congressman's request in September for a full explanation of the shipments was ignored for months by DOE. With the final truckload having arrived in Nevada Dec. 11, DOE is still preparing to respond to Rep. John F. Seiberling (D-Ohio).

Nuclear waste management has posed problems for 25 years, but public sensitivities on the issue were jarred sharply with the Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania last spring.

The resulting picture of confused federal and industry handling and shipment of radioactive materials stirred state and local governments toward more militant questioning of a tranditional "trust-us" attitude of the federal government.

In the states of Washington, Nevada and South Carolina, governors have temporarily closed waste storage sites because of safety concerns. More than two dozen northeastern Ohio communities have tried to ban the shipment of nuclear waste through their jurisdictions. New York City tried the same thing.

The National Governors Association in July reiterated its call for uniform waste-handling standards and establishment of a system to inform state and local officials about nuclear waste shipments -- amounts, times, origin and destination, mode of transport.

And the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, partly in response to public and congressional pressures, has set up new standards for advising local authorities of nuclear waste movements.

NRC authorizing legislation, about to clear Congress, includes an amendment by Seiberling and Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D.-Ohio) requiring the NRC to inform governors of nuclear-waste movements through their states.

Ironically, part of the DOE shipments of spent fuel from the Florida Power and Light Co.'s Turkey Point generating station in Dade County went first to a laboratory in Columbus, Ohio -- without state officials being informed.

"Governors and state authorities should be notified in advance to protect public health and safety," Seiberling said last week. "That is so obvious that it hardly seems credible that anyone would take a different view."

Ordinarily, the movement of any spent fuel or waste from a facility such as Turkey Point would be regulated by the NRC, the government agency that oversees the commercial nuclear industry, and the Department of Transportation.

But federal jurisdictions are divided. DOE, as a descendant of the old Atomic Energy Commission, operates on its own in handling safety and security for nuclear research materials and military reactor and weapons materials.

DOE rules vary from those of the NRC, and although DOE insists that its rules are adequate, some critics, such as Seiberline and Sen. Gary Hart (D.-Colo.), disagree.

One of the main differences involves notification. Roy Garrison, a DOE transportation official who supervised the shipments from Turkey Point, said "it is not our policy" to advise governors of nuclear movements through their states.

Garrison said that DOE adheres to the no-disclosure policy because "some of our shipments are defense-related." In fiscal 1979, he said, DOE made 62 shipments of spent fuel to and from domestic facilities and handled 69 shipments of irradiated fuel from overseas. All but the Turkey Point portions of spent fuel were from noncommerical U.S. operations, he said.

Another critic of DOE's operations, David Berick of the Environmental Policy Center, said that longstanding defense and national security arguments have clouded the agency's view toward disclosure.

"More and more," Berick said, "local, state and regional concerns are just brushed aside because of their [DOE's] attitude that this waste material is not dangerous and because national security is involved. They are opposed to any effort to bring NRC into the waste management area."

According to internal DOE documents related to the Turkey Point shipments, agency officials debated whether to abide by NRC standards on disclosure but were then helped out of their dilemma by their lawyers.

The DOE attorneys ruled that the agency could follow its own standards -- even though the spent fuel came from an NRC licensee's plant -- by having DOE officially take possession of the material at the Dade County site. Otherwise, NRC shipping standards would have applied.

The spent fuel from Turkey Point was sought by DOE for use in a research program to study ways to store highly toxic waste material from commercial nuclear generators.

Most spent fuel is now kept at generating plants, but utilities are running out of storage space -- a situation that is expected to become critical by the mid-1980s.

The material from Turkey Point is to be kept under close observation for five years, surrounded by granite about 1,400 feet below a DOE test facility in the Nevada desert.

Four of the 18 shipments, before arrival in Nevada, were taken to the Battelle Institute in Columbus, Ohio, for inspection and research checks. The last of the four shipments reached Nevada Dec. 11.

The Senate nuclear energy subcommittee chaired by Hart is investigating DOE's waste-handling procedures and, through a bill being pushed by Hart, is raising the possibility of giving the NRC a role in reviewing DOE actions.

"Our hearings have shown DOE has serious problems with waste management," a Hart aide said, "but DOE raises the national security argument, fearing NRC would impede their weapons programs or release sensitive information. Some of that just doesn't make sense."

Hart has been critical of what he has termed an "internal conflict of interest" at DOE -- the agency regulating itself with no independent review, such as the NRC might provide under his legislation.