The Nuclear Regulatory Commission yesterday rebuffed a second bid by the Reagan administration to speed up construction of the controversial $3.2 billion Clinch River Breeder Reactor at Oak Ridge, Tenn., despite political maneuvers that appeared to favor its adoption.
The commission voted 2 to 2 on a motion to reconsider the speed-up, thereby tabling it under NRC rules. Voting against the motion was Commissioner James K. Asselstine, a Reagan appointee who had been sworn in only hours before the vote.
Asselstine said that he believed that "the manner in which this request for reconsideration has been presented to the commission, the timing of the request and the importance of my position to the outcome . . . would all raise serious concerns regarding my own independence and objectivity" if he voted in favor.
The Department of Energy was seeking to by-pass normal licensing requirements to allow construction to begin at the Clinch River site. DOE asked for an exemption that would have allowed a quarry to be dug, a wharf to be built and 271 acres to be bulldozed in preparation for construction of roads, a railroad spur and a sewage treatment plant on the site.
The Clinch River fast breeder reactor, designed to produce more nuclear fuel than it uses, has been among the top priorities of the nuclear industry, but support for the project has been ebbing in recent years and DOE says that more delay will make it even hard to win congressional backing.
Asselstine was confirmed by the Senate last Thursday and sworn in as a commissioner yesterday morning.
What was at stake was "extraordinary relief from the commission's licensing requirements--relief that has been granted only infrequently in the past," he noted. "The nature of this issue deserves the most careful and thoughtful consideration by the commission," he said.
While he noted that the issue to be voted on was only a procedural question and that consideration could have come later, that action yesterday would have appeared "hasty and ill-considered."
Asselstine said that he believes that DOE retains the option to submit a new request for exemption and that the commission could take that request under consideration "in a much more careful and deliberative manner."
Renee Parsons of Friends of the Earth, which opposes the Clinch Breeder project, said that the DOE attempt to push through the exemption "was really a blatant display of political arrogance." Its failure will probably prompt congressional supporters of the project to try to avoid another vote, she said.
Commissioner John F. Ahearne voted with Asselstine against reconsideration. Chairman Nunzio J. Palladino and Commissioner Thomas Morgan Roberts voted in favor of reconsideration. Commissioner Victor Gilinsky, who had previosly voted against the exemption, was out of town.