Two Canadian nuclear workers who developed cancer were awarded compensation because of their exposure to radiation on the job, apparently the first time such compensation has been awarded to reactor workers in North America, Canadian nuclear officials announced yesterday.

One of the workers died of leukemia and the other has cancer of the lymph glands. Both had worked in nuclear plants for more than 25 years, but neither had been exposed to radiation in excess of limits considered safe by nuclear regulators in Canada and the United States, according to Canadian officials.

"It's the first time this has happened in a nuclear establishment--radiation as a possible or contributing cause of cancer," said Hal Tracy, a spokesman for Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., the government agency that runs the nuclear plant at Chalk River, Ontario.

The awards by the Ontario Workmen's Compensation Board could have a significant effect as a precedent for the nuclear industry and its workers, and could have significant impact as well on standards for radiation exposure. Some critics contend that the United States and Canada have lagged behind Great Britain in developing standards for compensation for radiation poisoning. In Britain, such compensation has been awarded in several cases in recent years.

Atomic Energy of Canada said yesterday that radiation is the most probable cause of the cancers that killed one of the workers and disabled the other. Each had received more than 100 rem of low-level radiation, accumulated over three decades of work at the Canadian nuclear plant. The average amount of radiation that people in the United States receive from nature is about three-tenths of a rem per year.

Both men were employed at the research reactor at Chalk River Nuclear Laboratories, near Ottawa. They were not exposed to radiation amounts that were above the recommended limit of 5 rem per year but both were long-term employes of the plant. One worked there 28 years and the other 31 years.

Since cancers induced by radiation or other occupational causes cannot easily be distinguished from other cancers, according to Atomic Energy of Canada, "it is impossible to single out a particular cause such as radiation in any one individual. However, it is possible to make a rough estimate of the probability that a particular agent was causative or contributory to the development of cancer."

"We have always believed there was an increased risk of cancer due to radiation exposure," Tracy said. "We accept the idea of no minimum dose--but we are classed as a safe industry, no more than one job death per 10,000 workers."

Atomic Energy of Canada said in a news release yesterday that most industries have occupational risks of death much greater than the nuclear industry. Between one in 1,000 and one in 5,000 may die from occupational causes in other industries; about one in 10,000 may die from occupational causes, including radiation, in the nuclear industry, it said.

Twenty percent of U.S. deaths are from cancer and it is believed that workers in the nuclear industry have an additional risk of 0.5 percent up to 1.5 percent because of the additional radiation they are exposed to, according to nuclear physicist Bernard Cohen of the University of Pittsburgh.

Some uranium miners in the United States have been compensated for cancers contracted due to radiation and several reactor employes in Britain have been given compensation because of radiation-induced disease as well, but the two Canadian cases are apparently the first of their kind on this continent.

The widow of the worker who died of leukemia has received the top amount granted by the board, $492 per month. The worker who has cancer of the lymph glands has received a pension equal to 100 percent of his wages, or about $1,355 per month, the highest the board can award.