If controversy were a fuel source, the Clinch River breeder reactor would already be a wild success. The nuclear power project is generating a high-voltage argument as Congress and the Reagan administration tussle over Clinch River's future.
Congressional investigators this week charged that the project is "a cost and technical fiasco." In a sharply critical report, they document lengthy delays, multiplying cost estimates, unresolved safety issues, questionable contract procedures, and instances of bribery and fraud.
Nonetheless, the Reagan administration wants to proceed with Clinch River and has asked for $254 million to support it in 1982. There is much opposition in Congress, however, and its future remains in doubt as the budget reconciliation process proceeds.
Unlike conventional nuclear power plants, breeder reactors produce more radioactive material than they consume.Supporters see this as a nearly endless source of energy supply; opponents view it as a threat to the environment, if not world peace.
Leading the current congressional investigation is Ernest Fitzgerald, the government watchdog who incurred official wrath for reporting cost overruns in the Air Force's C-5A transport aircraft in 1969. Key points in the Clinch River report are:
* Cost estimates for Clinch River have spiraled from $669 million in 1973 to has yet to begin. The breeder demonstration project, originally promised for 1979, now will not be completed before 1990 at the earliest.
If the Nuclear Regulatory Commission orders the breeder reactor moved to another site, as some predict, this would raise the total estimated cost to about $5 billion and push back completion to 1994.
* Investigators found examples of "loose and unenforceable contracts," including instances where contracts were let without bid. As an example of one "staggering overrun," they point to an agreement for 11 steam generators for $57 million. Instead, the government paid $143 million for just two generators.
* More than 100 safety issues remain unresolved, yet the Department of Energy "is considering an amendment to the Energy Reorganization Act to circumvent . . . safety requirements." The administration also will seek an exemption from the National Environmental Policy Act to avoid the required updating of the project's environmental impact statement, the report states.
* Investigators "revealed several clear cases of fraud and abuse," which they have asked the General Accounting Office and the Energy Department's inspector general to pursue.
In congressional testimony this week, Assistant Energy Secretary Shelby Brewer called the criticisms of Clinch River "greatly exaggerated." He defended the government's contract procedures and said instances of mismanagement and corruption had been detected by the Energy Department and promptly reported.
Since other countries (including France and the Soviet Union) are ahead of the United States in breeder reactor development, some experts are suggesting "leapfrogging" to even more advanced technology. The Reagan administration, however, contends it is necessary to continue federal support for Clinch River "to lower risks and uncertainties to levels consistent with normal commercial ventures," according to Mr. Brewer.
The administration promises its own thorough review of Clinch River, and blames much of the cost escalation and scheduling delays on the national political debate over nuclear energy. President Carter tried to kill the project on the grounds that the plutonium it would produce could increase the spread of nuclear weapons.
The project's friends in Congress prevailed, however, appropriating funds for its continuation each year. This year, it looked as if the House might finally vote to end the controversial project.
As a congressman, White House Budget Director David A. Stockman had led the fight against Clinch River. He tried to leave it out of the Reagan austerity budget, but the President instead listened to Senate majority leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R) in whose state (tennessee) the project is located. The Republican-conservative Democrat "substitute" budget approved by the House included funding for Clinch River.