It is getting hard for the administration to justify the Clinch River breeder reactor. One sign was this week's House vote to deny funding, at least temporarily, for further work on the reactor - its first legislative setback.
Why the doubts?
Congress's General Accounting Office estimates it could cost taxpayers $8.5 billion. That's over twice the official Department of Energy (DOE) projection.
Furthermore, the need for a reactor that breeds more fissile fuel than it burns seems less urgent than it did a decade ago. There was concern then that the US would run short of uranium. However, growth of electricity demand has slowed. Many nuclear projects have been canceled. The installed nuclear power capacity projected for the year 2000 has dropped by a factor of seven and for 2020 has fallen twelvefold. Also, substantial new uranium reserves have been found.
A number of analysts now say that breeder reactors won't be justified economically until the next century, perhaps not until after the year 2050. The price of uranium would have to rise 10 to 12 times for a breeder to be economically attractive today.
Even the need to meet foreign competition seems less pressing.
Britain has put its program on hold. Energy secretary Nigel Lawson has concluded on economic grounds that breeders won't be needed until early in the next century.
In France, the Commissariat a l'Energie Atomique (CEA) is proceeding with the Super-Phenix large breeder. But the future of a planned follow-on reactor now is uncertain. Likewise in West Germany, the Kalkar breeder is in doubt. It, too, has been hampered by delays and cost escalation.
In spite of these developments, Clinch River boosters insist the US needs this expensive project. Their position seems anomalous for an administration whose cost-cutting zeal leads it to drop $7 million from the $13 million budget of a DOE program on nuclear fuel conservation. The technology under study would allow conventional nuclear power reactors to reduce their uranium needs by 15 percent.
Over the next half century, breeder reactors may be needed. A modest long-term research program could be a wise investment. But the Clinch River project appears to have lost its relevance.