A New York bank account central to a lurid embezzlement scandal unfolding in South Africa has been linked to payments made to American nuclear reactor technicians working -- in some cases illegally -- in that country.

The convoluted tale includes bank accounts in Bangkok and Vienna, a posh apartment in Monte Carlo, a suitcase full of Swiss francs, mysterious telephone calls from southern California and, indirectly, 38 Americans now working for South Africa's state-owned power company.

The Washington Post reported Jan. 20 that U.S. officials believed that at least some of those skilled American reactor operators are violating federal nuclear nonproliferation laws by working for South Africa's atomic power industry without authorization from the secretary of energy.

Etienne Duplessis, a spokesman for South Africa's Electricity Service Commission (ESCOM), confirmed in a telephone interview from Johannesburg yesterday that an ESCOM "strategic fund" deposited with Chase Manhattan Bank in New York may have been used, in part, to pay the Americans hired to work at South Africa's new nuclear reactor at Koeberg, near Cape Town.

"It could be used for that, it could be used for many other things," Duplessis said without elaborating.

The strategic fund, which came to light after $3.65 million allegedly was stolen from it by an ESCOM embezzler, has piqued the interest of both congressional and U.S. government investigators trying to determine how the American technicians were recruited for their jobs in South Africa.

According to an Energy Department official, of the eight technicians whose cases have been examined to date, all have been found to violate the U.S. nonproliferation statutes, punishable by 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

As reconstructed by Duplessis, other South African officials and South African news accounts, the oblique ties between the American technicians and the embezzlement case center on a 49-year-old ESCOM bureaucrat named Gert Johannes Rademeyer.

Hired in October 1980, Rademeyer was working as the utility's assistant chief accountant on Dec. 3 when he allegedly asked for and received authorization from his superior to transfer $3.65 million from the Chase Manhattan account to a bank in Switzerland.

The money was intended to pay a company for enrichment services to have uranium processed into the rods or pellets needed for reactor fuel.

When the transfer from New York snagged -- apparently there was no account for the enrichment firm at the Volksbank in Bern, Switzerland -- Rademeyer warned that an urgent business deal was about to be scuttled by the delay.

The money subsequently was shifted to his personal account, according to Duplessis. Several hours later, Rademeyer caught a flight to Geneva using a passport from Australia, where he lived from 1965 to 1973.

The accountant quickly transferred about $500,000 to a bank in Bangkok and another $500,000 to two accounts in Vienna.

An additional $33,000 was used for advance rent for an apartment in Monte Carlo, according to Ben De Wet, who was recently appointed trustee of Rademeyer's estate by a marshal of the South African supreme court.

On Dec. 31, Rademeyer discreetly returned to South Africa with a suitcase containing 135,000 Swiss francs -- "brand-new notes," Duplessis said.

The money was deposited in a bank account in the name of his wife, Familia, who had remained in South Africa. Rademeyer left the country again on Jan. 4.

He surfaced last week in Coronado, Calif., near San Diego, where he made long-distance calls to his lawyer and a South African newspaper.

The lawyer called ESCOM and said his client was interested in returning the money in exchange for immunity from prosecution, Duplessis said.

"We said no deal," Duplessis added. "We'll see Rademeyer in court."

There has been speculation that Rademeyer is eager to talk about 57 million rand (roughly $25 million) that Duplessis acknowledges ESCOM has written off quietly since the mid-1970s on "some deals that we lost money on."

In a telephone call to Johannesburg's Sunday Express newspaper, it was reported earlier this week, Rademeyer denied his guilt and said he was the victim of "a massive cover-up of financial irregularities" by ESCOM.

Part of the reason for the utility's intransigence in cutting a deal is that all but $200,000 of the embezzled $3.65 million has been located, Duplessis said.

Although it is not clear when ESCOM's internal auditors detected the embezzlement -- an arrest warrant was not issued until more than a month after the transfer from New York -- the accountant left a wide paper trail.

The accounts in Vienna, Bangkok, Bern and South Africa were all detected and frozen. De Wet, interviewed by telephone in Johannesburg yesterday, said he is moving against the Monte Carlo apartment. Rademeyer's attempts to have money transferred to an account in Los Angeles also were blocked, Duplessis said.

Interpol is involved in the case, Duplessis said, although a spokesman for the Federal Bureau of Investigation said there is no outstanding fugitive warrant for the accountant in the United States.

The strategic fund in New York was disclosed late last week by a legal counsel for ESCOM, Benjamin Rheeder, who, while briefing South African journalists, acknowledged that the account was used to pay for sensitive and secret projects.

Asked by a reporter whether the fund was used to pay American technicians at Koeberg, the counsel acknowledged that it was, "among other things," according to the reporter, Geoffrey Allen of the Rand Daily Mail. "He confirmed it absolutely and there were at least 40 journalists at the briefing," Allen said.

Duplessis said yesterday that there was "no connection" between Rademeyer and the Americans working for ESCOM.

"It has absolutely nothing to do with that. I want to say emphatically that Rademeyer never had to recruit somebody for ESCOM," Duplessis said. "Most of the people that we do have were recruited by word of mouth. We didn't have a recruitment drive in the United States . . . . There was nothing untoward in our getting Americans to work here."

Asked whether anyone working directly or indirectly for ESCOM in the United States was offering jobs to U.S. reactor technicians, Duplessis said no and then amended his reply: "I can't answer that emphatically. I don't know."

Most of the American technicians in South Africa are believed to have come from the Tennessee Valley Authority, Carolina Power & Light Co. and Southern California Edison's San Onofre nuclear plants. When it was noted that Rademeyer recently showed up in Coronado, a few miles from San Onofre, Duplessis dismissed it as coincidental.

A 1983 U.S. law requires authorization from the secretary of energy before an American citizen can "directly or indirectly" help certain nations, including South Africa, produce plutonium, a byproduct of reactor operations that can be used to fashion nuclear weapons.

South Africa has refused to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and is suspected of developing nuclear bombs, although there is no evidence that the 38 Americans working at the Koeberg power plant are involved in anything other than the generation of electricity.

U.S. authorities have written the 38, warning them that they may be violating the law.

Eight have submitted requests for authorization after the fact, and those applications are being considered, an Energy Department official said.

It has yet to be determined whether legal action will be taken against the Americans, the official added.