Washington — Among government projects labeled as pork, few can match the $8 billion to $ 12 billion uranium project under construction near Portsmouth, Ohio. Attacked as unneeded and obsolete, it has a recent history that reads like the ''Perils of Pauline.'' But somehow it manages to stay alive.
Known as the Gas Centrifuge Enrichment Plant, or GCEP, the project began in the 1970s, when nuclear energy was on an upswing. As planned, it would use then-new technology to ''enrich'' uranium for nuclear reactors.
Since the planning, almost everything has gone awry. President Ford promised the plant to Oak Ridge, Tenn. But just as construction was to begin in 1976, Jimmy Carter was campaigning in central Ohio, blanketing the state with promises that, if he was elected president, he would move GCEP to the Portsmouth area. By a margin of about 10,000 votes, Carter won Ohio, a key to his election victory. Only six months later, he tried to renege on his promise. But Democrats in the state saved GCEP with its promise of 5,000 construction jobs and 2,200 permanent jobs.
Soon afterward, the project hit more snags. The demand for nuclear fuel shrank while concern for nuclear proliferation grew. Moreover, a new and promising method for uranium enrichment by lasers came on the horizon.
The Carter and Reagan administrations began trying to gut GCEP. Once again the Ohio lawmakers saved the plant, even if the flow of funds has slowed.
The United States will pay about $588 million for the project this year, a huge amount by most standards, but not nearly enough to complete the plant by the 1988 target date. So far only two of the eight planned structures for the plant are built, at a total outlay of $2.1 billion since 1977.
An aide to Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D) of Ohio says even among supporters the reality ''has sunken in that there's no way to get construction back up to the level it was.''