Budget cuts? Not for dams, waterways

In its austerity drive, Congress has cut off the minimum benefit for social security recipients, closed down programs for the poor, and eliminated federally financed public-service jobs. Congressional thriftiness has touched school-lunch programs, food stamps, and medicare.

But a bill approved this week by a House committee indicates that austerity has not yet hit a proposal to spend $186 million on the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway in Alabama and Mississippi. Nor has it hit the Clinch River Breeder Reactor Project near Oak Ridge, Tenn., which would cost $227 million in the coming year. Or the plan to build the Stonewall Jackson Lake in West Virginia for $16 million next year (with total cost of over $200 million).

Those are just a few of the programs outlined in the Energy and Water Development Appropriation bill, which calls for spending $13.6 billion next year on flood control, power plants, dams, and a host of similar federal projects.

The total, which is $1 billion more than for 1982, might hardly be noticed in other years in this bill, the traditional vehicle for ''pork barrel'' projects that create jobs and good will in home districts. However, in a time of fiscal conservatism, dissenters are raising their voices.

The chief target is the Clinch River nuclear plant.

''Perhaps no single federal project epitomizes wasteful spending as much as the Clinch River Breeder Reactor,'' according to US Rep. Claudine Schneider (R) of Rhode Island, who is leading the charge against the project in the House.

Proposed more than 10 years ago, the reactor project was hailed as a forerunner of power plants that could use abundant low-grade uranium for fuel. A decade later, workers have yet to break ground on Clinch River and cost estimates have soared from less than $1 billion to at least $3.6 billion. The US General Accounting Office is expected this week to report a new cost of almost $ 10 billion, including interest and incidental expenses.

An unlikely alliance is fighting the Clinch River project.

Ecologists and antinuclear groups are predictably in the fray, but they have been joined by the New Right and pronuclear advocates. These critics call the project obsolete and outmoded by changes in the economy.

''I support nuclear power, but I don't support waste,'' says Sen. Gordon J. Humphrey (R) of New Hampshire, leader of the opposition in the Senate. ''It makes no sense because the economic assumptions have not borne out,'' he says, pointing to the drop in demand for electricity, as well as in the sharp decrease in uranium prices that have made the breeder plant unnecessary.

''Ordinary nuclear power plants make more economic sense,'' he adds.

While the Clinch River project enjoys backing from the nuclear power industry and from some scientists, its technology has been widely criticized as obsolete by a long list of prominent scientists and economists. But it has a powerful friend in Senate majority leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R) of Tennessee.

Each year the margin for support of the project has shrunk, however, and Senator Baker has already begun making calls and appearances to keep Clinch River alive for 1983. The fact that the project is in Tennessee is irrelevant, says his spokesman. ''If it were in Kansas he'd be just as supportive.''

''The US still needs one entry in this sweepstakes, and this is the only entry we've got going,'' says the Baker aide, referring to the breeder-reactor programs now being tested in France, the Soviet Union, and elsewhere.

Opponents will be trying to kill the nuclear project before Congress recesses next week.

''There is an enormous amount of pressure by the grass-roots and citizens organizations,'' Representative Schneider says in an interview. She says that she is confident her side has the votes to defeat the project if it comes before the House on a separate vote.

However, it is far from certain that members will have that vote. The project could be kept alive under the continuing resolution that Congress is now working on to keep the entire government operating after Oct. 1.

Meanwhile, opponents will be shining the spotlight on other ''fat'' in the pork barrel, hoping to force action before the elections, when members might be more easily embarrassed by voting for spending.

Other projects include $170.9 million for a water project for central Arizona; $106 million to begin an irrigation project in North Dakota that has produced outcries from Canada over pollution and would eventually cost $832 million; and an amendment added at the last minute to grant water users in Colorado $38 million in federal subsidies.

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