A House subcommittee chairman asked Energy Secretary John S. Herrington yesterday to resolve "significant inconsistencies" in official records and statements concerning the employment of about 38 American nuclear-reactor specialists by South Africa's state-owned power company.

Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) complained in a three-page letter to Herrington that the department's investigation of the matter "has been characterized by false starts, changing directions, failure to ask appropriate questions and clandestine meetings."

U.S. law requires authorization from the secretary of Energy before any U.S. citizen "directly or indirectly" helps certain nations produce plutonium, a reactor byproduct that can be used to make nuclear weapons. South Africa was added to the list in 1983 because it refused to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Violations carry a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

According to Markey, who is chairman of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on energy conservation and power, the issue was discussed March 6 at a secret meeting here between DOE officials and representatives of South Africa's Electricity Supply Commission (ESCOM).

Markey said that a DOE official's notes about the meeting say: "ESCOM: 'we told Amers about 810 [the authorization rule] when recruiting.' "

Markey said this conflicted with letters from some of the Americans to DOE indicating that "they were unaware of the law."

Similarly, Markey noted, a spokesman for ESCOM, Andre van Heerden, was quoted in the Jan. 29 edition of The Washington Post as denying reports that the Americans had been lured to work in South Africa with $100,000-a-year, tax-free salaries plus free houses and cars.

The chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), C.H. Dean, told the subcommittee in a March 8 letter, however, that his agency had evidence of ESCOM's offering salaries ranging from "$90,000 to $200,000 and fringe benefits such as profit sharing, quarters allowances, relocation bonuses, free round trips to the United States for leave, and the payment of South African taxes."

TVA says it lost 11 employes to ESCOM last year. Dean said that there was some unverified indication that some of the employes were recruited by a talent hunter who was "reputed to have received a $5,000 bonus for each licensed individual hired."

There is widespread suspicion that South Africa is developing or has built nuclear bombs. There is no evidence, however, that the Americans working as nuclear specialists at the Koeberg station near Cape Town are involved in anything other than generating electricity. At least eight Americans working there are reported to have requested after-the-fact authorizations.

Markey urged Herrington not to take action without a more thorough investigation; the congressman suggested that the FBI be called in.

There was no immediate reaction from Herrington. Acting press secretary Constance Stuart said, however, that Herrington has yet to make a decision on the issue because "there are more facts to be gathered."