The stage appears set for a new push to develop fast breeder atomic reactors in the United States. According to a recent issue of the Energy Daily, President-elect Ronald Reagan's transition team has recommended an "immediate review" of the breeder program. The brief transition team report also criticized President Carter's efforts to halt work on the experimental breeder reactor on the Clinch River near Oak Ridge, tenn.
And the breeder reactor program has picked up an important new supporter. One-time Clinch River reactor critic S. David Freeman, chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), says: "I changed my mind." After a December visit to see France's new breeder reactor, Mr. Freeman comments, "We need to complete clinch River. I don't want a French monopoly on the power plants of the next century." (France is the world leader in development of breeder reactors.)
While recognizing that "it's dangerous, like a lot of things," Freeman says the US can learn from Clinch River and then go on to build bigger and better breeder reactors.
"There's little doubt that Clinch River will go ahead," says Charles Till, assistant director for engineering research and development at the Argonne National Laboratory in Batavia, Ill.
Dr. till participated in a multination review of world uranium supplies. The group's conclusion, he said, was that except under the lowest assumption of the need for nuclear power, uranium supplies are "sufficiently tight" to warrant proceeding with breeder reactors.
By some estimates, a breeder reactor can squeeze 100 times more energy than can a conventional reactor from the same amount of fuel. Moreover, the plutonium byproduct can be reprocessed and reused to fuel the reactor. This eventually could ease demands on limited world supplies of the nuclear fuel uranium, supporters say.
Supporters of the breeder reactor, such as Donald B. Trauger, associate director for nuclear engineering and technology at Oak Ridge National Laboratory , claim that if the US waits until world uranium supplies run low before developing breeder facilities, it will be too late. It takes many years to develop efficient breeder reactors, he notes.
The $3 billion Clinch River breeder reactor, approximately three-fourths designed, could be operating by 1989, says Bob Stalker director of reactor research and technology for the US Department of Energy (DOE).
The question for the incoming Reagan administration, according to nuclear experts, is whether to complete the Clinch River breeder reactor or begin another, larger facility using more recent technology.
President Carter has been able to slow development of the Clinch River facility, but Congress has appropriated enough funds to move the project forward slowly.
John Deutch, former undersecretary of the US department of Energy, says the whole debate on the breeder program has been confused by the widespread impression that Carter's opposition was based on concern over proliferation. The real basis for the President's opposition, says Dr. Deutch, was his conclusion that proceeding would be a "waste of money," at least at the time.
Carter wanted to wait to be sure that breeders were really needed and that the latest technology would be employed.
Indeed, Thomas B. Cochran, senior staff scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, argues that breeder reactors are uneconomical. The large breeder the French are building is estimated to cost about 2 1/2 times that of their other reactors of comparable size, he says. Supporters counter by noting that costs are expected to come down as the technology improves.
Mr. Cochran also argues that a full-size breeder reactor would produce "about 400 atomic bombs worth of plutonium annually" and that "at present there is no credible way to safeguard that material."
But France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Japan, and the Soviet Union are proceeding with breeder reactor projects. Does that make concerns about the proliferation of the technology a moot point?
"Our stopping doesn't have any effect on proliferation," says Dr. Trauger, since other countries are proceeding anyway.
He adds that research is under way to make breeder reactors "very secure" against theft.
But Cochran counters that, because of high costs, other countries are "slowing down" their breeder programs and may eventually pull back altogether. SO US curtailment of breeder development may reduce proliferation after all, he says.
Are the breeder reactors any more potentially dangerous than other reactors? There has not been enough experience with breeders to answer that, says Tom Dillon, assista nt secretary for nuclear reactor programs for the DOE.