Deep-sixing Clinch River

By , Paul Tsongas, Democrat of Massachusetts in the United States Senate, is on the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

While the United States budget deficit soars to dizzying new heights, the White House remains recklessly intent on funding one of the most wasteful government projects of all time, the Clinch River Breeder Reactor.

Clinch River is a $5.5 billion project that looked badly flawed when it was first authorized by Congress in 1970, and looks far more flawed today.

The administration, however, has stuck to the plan like hot tar despite the risks of nuclear proliferation it poses and the ever mounting evidence that Clinch River will be outmoded, uneconomical, and unnecessary on the day it is finished.

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No wonder then that congressional support for Clinch River has been steadily shrinking. In late 1982 the Senate agreed to appropriate more money for Clinch River by a single vote; the House at first voted, by a wide margin, to halt all funds for the nuclear reactor, though eventually accepted a limited budget that delays all construction at the Tennessee site.

If Clinch River were a nickel-and-dime matter or if the US balance sheet were less awash in red ink, then the rut that the administration has dug itself in pushing ahead with the project would be less galling.

But Clinch River is very much a big-ticket item.

So far, outlays have totaled $1.3 billion, virtually all of it for research and development or manufacture of component parts. If the project proceeds to construction, it will add another $4.2 billion to the national debt over the next five years.

When first proposed, Clinch River had a price tag of only $514 million. It was conceived as a joint venture, with the cost to be shared equally by industry and government. The nuclear industry showed its faith in the project to build the first commercial-scale breeder reactor in the country by pledging to foot half the bill: $257 million.

The industry eventualy contributed $135 million before developing a severe case of cold feet. Unless the industry indicates its support for Clinch River by putting a significant sum of money on the line, there is no way to ensure that this technology reflects the priorities of the marketplace - a principle that the administration has stressed in opposing solar energy and conservation programs.

To test the industry's commitment to Clinch River, I offered a Senate amendment in 1981 to cut the federal investment in it by requiring industry to pay half the cost. The amendment lost narrowly, partly because Clinch River backers had doubts about its prospects in the marketplace despite their claims to the contrary.

Clinch River raises another concern. It will generate large quantities of plutonium, which can be used in the manufacture of nuclear weapons. The commitment to a ''plutonium economy,'' as manifested in Clinch River, would greatly aggravate the difficulty of controlling proliferation of nuclear weapons around the world.

Even within the nuclear industry and Congress, many of Clinch River's erstwhile supporters have been turning against the idea.

First, Clinch River is no longer a sound proposition financially. When the blueprints were first unveiled more than a decade ago, it looked like a springboard to cheaper electricity. The new technology, whatever its faults from the standpoint of nuclear proliferation, at least promised a new era of cheaper electricity.

But the breeder reactor makes sense only if the price of uranium remains high.

Huge new discoveries of uranium around the world - and a drastic downward revision in expected uranium consumption because of the chill throughout the nuclear power industry since the Three Mile Island debacle - have cause the Energy Department to discount the economic feasibility of the breeder for at least the next 40 years.

Second, the Clinch River design is obsolete and has been overshadowed by more promising breeder technology. I have supported breeder research and development as a part of a comprehensive government program to explore any technology that might contribute to our energy security. Given the sharp cutbacks in the federal budget for energy conservation, solar energy, nuclear fusion, and clean-burning coal technologies - all with bright prospects - the Clinch River project is clearly unwarranted.

Why the Reagan administration continues to pursue its policy toward Clinch River is curious.

The administration need look for guidance no farther than its own budget director, David Stockman. As a congressman a few years ago, Stockman opposed the breeder project as a large subsidy that the government ought to scrap at once.

The White House would do well to heed Stockman's advice. As matters now stand , Mr. Reagan risks suffering a defeat in Congress, which is on the verge of recognizing Clinch River for the folly it is and deep-sixing it once and for all.

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