Idaho unafraid of nuclear power: It wants costly new breeder reactor

There is at least one state where pro-nuclear forces seem in control: Idaho. Idaho and nuclear technology are no strangers to each other. Not only was this the first state where atomic power was used to generate electricity in commercial quantities, but a number of advances in the nuclear field also were made here.

Now Idaho is actively seeking a federally financed breeder reactor that would generate electricity for commercial use here and serve as a prototype for the development of breeders to be used nationwide.

The reactor may yet find its way here because an Idahoan, James A. McClure (R), has become chairman of the Senate Energy Committee.

Senator McClure has long been an outspoken advocate of nuclear power and especially the breeder reactor. In 1978 he claimed to have made a deal with President Carter assuring further research toward development of a breeder. Last year he accused Mr. Carter of trying to kill off breeder reactor development. Now, as Energy Committee chairman, he is being pressed to persuade Congress to build a multibillion dollar breeder at the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory (INEL) in the desert west of here.

Back in 1955, Experimental Breeder Reactor I at INEL produced electricity that was fed into Utah Power & Light Company lines. It lighted the nearby town of Arco for a 24- hour period. At the time, Arco residents did not know they were using atomically generated power. Today the town advertises itself as the first in the world to be lighted by nuclear power.

Since the early 1960s, another experimental breeder reactor (EBR-II) at INEL has been in operation more than 70 percent of the time, testing fuels and materials for possible use in nuclear energy development.

McClure and many other Idahoans think it now makes sense to build a power-generating breeder reactor here. Idaho, they say, has the space, the site , the history of nuclear research, and the potential customers for electricity to justify the project. And they argue that only the breeder, which manufactures plutonium from uranium even as it consumes a lesser amount of the same plutonium, is the only practicable answer to the nation's energy problems.

But there are a couple of flies buzzing around the ointment they are trying to concoct.

One of these is power politics. The possibility of building a breeder somewhere -- possibly in Idaho -- was raised when Carter vetoed the $80 million Clinch River, Tenn., project in 1977 because the experimental reactor would "imperil the administration's policy to curb proliferation of nuclear weapons technology."

Support for the breeder did not die, however, and some of its backers came to like the self-contained design of EBR-II in Idaho, which (unlike the "loop" type of breeder) does not allow hot or radioactive liquid to leave the main reactor building.

But the guessing here is that at least three other states, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Washington, will want the new breeder reactor -- if it is built. Tennessee has such spokesmen as Senate majority leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R) and David Freeman, head of the Tennessee Valley Authority, on its side. Barely a week after the November election, one Tennessee source was quoted as saying: "We don't want to be presumptuous about what Governor Reagan's policies would be , but he's been very supportive of Clinch River. . . . We will certainly support it enthusiastically."

South Carolina, for its part, is the home of the new US Secretary of Energy, James Edwards. It might get an extra boost if the military backs a location there. A decision about that is expected by April 1.

Washington has various waste-disposal and labor problems at its federal nuclear facility at Hanford. But the state also has the influence of veteran Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D) going for it.

The other fly is small, but growing, opposition to nuclear activity in Idaho. If the building of a new breeder seems likely, it will probably generate protests. Idaho has an anti- nuclear group called the Snake River Alliance, formed in 1979.

There has been almost no opposition to nuclear power in Idaho since INEL was built in the 1950s. Even the environmental movement in the state has deferred to this large federal installation. Indeed, some of the most active environmentalists here are INEL employees. Idahoans call it "the site."

But the 1969 worry began to grow when it was discovered that liquid nuclear waste was being injected into the ground above the Snake River aquifer, which flows about 600 feet beneath "the site." That worry was renewed two years later when it was learned that solid waste had for years been buried in cardboard boxes on the site and the boxes were disintegrating, allowing radioactive materials to creep through the earth toward the aquifer. In 1979, the matter of nuclear waste disposal resurfaced as one newspaper seemed to discover it for the first time and another strove to turn it into the kind of reporting that wins journalism prizes.

In 1980 the issue fell dormant again. Politicians, as usual in Idaho, competed for the spotlight in announcing their support of INEL and nuclear power.

But the Snake River Alliance still regularly denounces the waste disposal practices of nuclear power in general and INEL in particular.

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