Every Friday at 5:30 p.m., a handful of people gathers beside Whiskey Road to pray for an end to the nuclear arms race as workers from "the bomb plant" pass by on their way home:

"Keep us mindful, O Lord, of Your call to reconciliation, for You said: 'Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.' "

While they pray, members of the Aiken Peace Movement struggle to keep their candles lit.

The vigil has been going on six months. Hardly anyone has noticed.

"We joke among ourselves about there being a conspiracy of silence," said Arthur Dexter, a retired plant physicist and a founder of the peace group.

This is no place for peaceniks or no-nuke types.

Aiken, a surprisingly cosmopolitan outpost of antebellum elegance and Yankee money where polo has been played in the city's "winter colony" for 103 years, is a company town.

The company is the Savannah River Plant, the nation's largest center for production of plutonium and tritium for nuclear weapons; a major nuclear-waste disposal facility and a naval nuclear unit are under construction.

Although people refer to it as "the bomb plant" or "bomb factory," it produces no bombs.

The plant, operated by E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. for the Department of Energy, is the area's largest employer.

Among its 13,400 workers are some of the city's most respected and best-paid citizens -- engineers, scientists, construction workers, truck drivers and mechanics.

They are viewed here as trustworthy neighbors, not merchants of war or destruction. With 2,300 more workers at the plant now than in 1983, President Reagan's arms buildup is regarded as a boon to the local economy, not a threat to world peace.

"We know the engineers and all the employes and have confidence in them," Buddy Coleman, of Coleman Shoes, said the other day.

"They would be the first ones to blow the whistle on themselves," he said. "The folks in Atlanta who don't know the Savannah River people are the ones who are always jumping up and down and saying the world is going to end. We just don't believe that here."

Dissent is more than frowned on. It is considered unneighborly, if not downright disloyal.

Steve Surasky, a young attorney, found that out a few years ago as member of the Aiken City Council.

When an environmental impact study threatened to delay the reopening of the plant's mothballed "L-reactor," the city councils here and in surrounding towns were asked to approve a resolution endorsing the restart without the study.

Surasky was the only area councilman to vote no.

"I knew the vote would be unpopular, but I had no idea how much trouble it would cause," he said. After leading the Democratic ticket in the previous election, Surasky lost his bid for another term.

The political message was clear.

Local Republicans seized on the issue, claiming that Democrats were soft on the Savannah River Plant. Last fall, a candidate for county court clerk, a job unrelated to the plant, held a Savannah River Plant rally.

Now both parties trip over themselves proclaiming allegiance to the plant.

"I don't know of any political faction in Aiken County that is anti-Savannah River," said county Democratic Chairman C.L. (Skip) Townsend.

"My farm backs up on the plant," Townsend added. "The fish in my lake and my cows don't glow in the dark, I promise you."

But talking about nuclear issues can be hazardous.

In January 1984, Trinity United Methodist Church here held a seminar for the clergy, among them a Methodist bishop, on "The Nuclear Presence in South Carolina."

The seminar included a visit to the plant, a presentation by plant officials and a talk by Albert L. Blackwell, a religion professor at Furman University.

The next day the Aiken Standard -- whose associate editor, Donald M. Law, is a former public relations man at the plant -- editorially blasted the Methodists for "inflammatory rhetoric" and said holding the seminar "close to the Savannah River Plant . . . was a chancy if not provocative act."

The editorial quoted Blackwell saying: "I believe that the nuclear arms race, for which our own Savannah River Plant is the starting gate, is a bondage of sin which Christian people are called to reject by prudent, bold and public exercises."

Such exercises are rare here. Some out-of-towners set up a "peace camp" outside of town last summer and rented several splashy billboards. "Nuclear Weapons: May they Rest in Peace," said one.

But most everyone ignored them. "They came in one time for a demonstration, but there was a tremendous downpour," recalled City Manager Roland E. Windham. "They did not come again."

Arthur Dexter, a soft-spoken man with bushy white hair and eyebrows, says he feels like a lone voice in the wilderness. He worked at the plant for more than 25 years but began to have serious doubts about what he was doing during the Vietnam war.

Now he and his wife, Maxine, spend much of their spare time with the small peace group they helped organize. Each week they hold a prayer vigil, a 24-hour fast, and place a small ad in the Standard.

"Although our efforts seem puny, it would seem obscene not to do them in this day and age," he said.