The government went to court here yesterday seeking to force a lawyer for a group that investigates nuclear safety problems to reveal the names of whistle-blowers who complained of violations at a Texas nuclear power plant but fear retaliation if their identities are divulged.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Nagle asked a federal judge to order the lawyer for the Government Accountability Project, Billie Pirner Garde, to comply with the subpoena issued by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Garde, who has been investigating allegations of safety violations at the South Texas Nuclear Project near Houston, has refused to disclose the names of 46 whistle-blowers employed at the plant and the NRC, claiming that they have not been given adequate assurances that the information would be kept confidential.

Lawyers for Garde and the Government Accountability Project argued that ordering Garde to comply with the subpoena would violate the attorney-client privilege and the First Amendment rights of the whistle-blowers to freedom of association.

"These people want to come forward. They want to give information to the NRC because they think there are safety problems," Patti Goldman, a lawyer for the accountability project, told U.S. District Court Judge Thomas F. Hogan. However, she said, "their concern is that their jobs may be at stake."

Forcing Garde to turn over their names, Garde's lawyer, Thomas Mack, said, would deter whistle-blowers from coming forward in the future. If the NRC subpoena is upheld, he said, "They're going to cut off what has been a massive flow of information" about safety violations.

Nagle argued that it is necessary for the NRC to obtain the names in order to investigate possible safety hazards in the plant, which is to begin "low-power" testing in February.

"The significance of the public health and safety considerations cannot be overstated," he said. He said the NRC has promised the whistle-blowers "significant confidentiality protections" that are "not waivable at the whim or fancy of any NRC official."

Before turning over its information to the NRC, the projects wants a binding promise, not only that the names will be kept confidential by the agency, but that the information will not be provided to the regional NRC office or to Victor Stello, NRC executive director for operations. They claim that they distrust the regional employes and Stello because of a reputation for turning over identities of whistle-blowers to utilities.

Hogan reserved ruling on the subpoena until next week. He said he "has concern with the depth and the breadth of the subpoena," which is not technically limited to the whistle-blowers' identities but also asks for any information they possess. However, he said, "at the same time this court has to balance . . . protecting the public from any safety defects that might exist."