Dr. James B. Edwards, the dentist and former governor of South Carolina now nomianted to be energy secretary, does not know whether President-elect Ronald Reagan wants to abolish the Department of Energy.

At a news conference yesterday called to introduce him and other Cabinet nominees, Edwards said he has "not been in contact with the president-elect" since the the telephone call in which Reagan asked him to serve. The question of dismantling the department, as Reagan promised. during his campaign that he would do, must wait "until we have some more direction" from Reagan, he said.

Similarly, Edwards, 53, who turned down the number two job at the Department of Health and Human Services to hold out for a seat on the Cabinet, has not been involved in any of the discussions of future energy policy by Reagan's energy advisory task force or by the transition team headed by Houston oilman Michel Halbouty.

Reagan is being urged by some advisers to lift price controls on gasoline, propane and crude oil as soon as he takes office. Other advisers want him to continue to phase out crude oil price controls over the next nine months to avoid a sudden impact on inflation. Edwards' views on these and most other energy policy matters are not known.

He is firmly on record, however, on abolishing his agency. "I'd like to go to Washington and close the Department of Energy down and work myself out of a job," Edwards said recently. Whether he manages that trick or not, Edwards is known to want to run for governor again in 1982.

He is a strong proponent of the use of nuclear power, which he regards as the "cleanest and the safest" means of generating electricity. He also favors development of nuclear breeder reactors -- which during operation create pultonium, a radioactive material that can be used to fuel other reactors but from which atomic weapons are also made -- saying they could satisfy the nation's energy needs "for the next 3,000 years."

In another controversial stand, Edwards supports reopening the Allied General Nuclear Services nuclear fuel. reprocessing plant in Barnwell, S.C. The plant was closed by President Carter in 1977 as part of his nuclear nonproliferation policy.

Environmentalists and antinuclear advocates are expected to oppose his confirmation by the Senate.

Elected in 1974 as his state's first Republican governor since Reconstruction, Edwards, a somewhat portly man with carefully groomed graying hair, has a reputation of being both extremely conservative and very easy going.

As a govenor, he strongly supported Reagan in 1976 when the Californian sought unsuccessfully to wrest the Republican presidential nomination from President Ford. But this year Edwards switched his allegiance to former Texas governor John B. Connally, partly because of a fierce dislike for early Reagan campaign chairman John Sears, and moved to Reagan only after Connally dropped out of the race.

Edwards' name was not on any list for a Cabinet job until southern Republican senators sent a letter to Reagan complaining their region was being slighted. The president-elect, during a visit to Washington, met with them for lunch and afterwards met privately with Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), who sold Edwards as the ideal southerener for the Cabinet.

Thurmond reportedly also asked Lee Atwater, a member of the Reagan transition group handling southern regional issues, to put Edwards' name in the computer job bank for DOE. When Halbouty, apparently the first choice, took himself out of the running, Edwards' name popped up on the computer printouts.

Edwards was criticized strongly when, as governor, he visited South Africa and was accused of endorsing that nation's apartheid policies. He said later his statements never went that far.

Affable and well-liked, Edwards had a high approval rating among voters when he was governor. Prohibited by law from seeking reelection in 1978, he considered challenging Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) this year but decided against it at the last minute.

A graduate of the College of Charleston and the University of Louisville Dental School, Edwards, a native of Florida, returned to Charleston to practice oral surgery. A strong supporter of Barry Goldwater, Edwards began his political career in 1964 as chairman of the fledgling Charleston County Republican Party, at a time when there were few Republicans there or elsewhere in South Carolina.

In an interview in 1975 for the book "The Transformation of Southern Politics" by Jack Bass and Walter DeVries, Edwards said he first became active politically because he was "fed up with all of the things that were going on in America back in the early 1960s. Things were going on that I was irritated by -- the rioting, the campus riots, the street marches, the revolutionary-type stuff, the anarchy, the irresponsible government is the way I like to describe it, where there is no regard for the taxpayers' money, and the experiments with all the great schemes that came out of Washington in the '60s. I just got to the point where I felt like why doesn't somebody do something, and then I realized I couldn't expect somebody else to do something unless I did it myself."

While Edwards is credited with operating as governor "with a pretty high degree of political skill," in the words of one South Carolina political observer, he also is considered "a real ideologue."

He ran unsuccessfully against Rep. L. Mendel Rivers (D-S.C.) in 1971 but was elected to the state Senate in 1973. He served one term before winning a surprise victory for the GOP gubernatorial primary in 1974 over former Army Chief of Staff William C. Westmoreland.

In another upset, he went on to beat Rep. William Jennings Bryan Dorn (D-S.C.) in the general election after Charles D. Ravenel, the Democratic Party's original nominee, was declared ineligible on a residency requirement.

Edwards and his wife, Ann, have a son and a daughter -- James Jr., 26, who was recently graduated from the University of South Carolina; and Catharine, 21, a student at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston.