President Carter's hope to turn the United States and the rest of the world away from the use of plutonium as a nuclear fuel faces possible defeat in the House and Senate.
The strategy Carter devised to convince the rest of the world not to use plutonium to make electricity was to deny the United States the use of plutonium. Carter did this by announcing last month the "indefinite delay" of the fast breeder power plant at CLinch River, Tenn., that would brun plutonium and the reprocessing plant at Barnwell, S.C., that would extract plutomium from spend uranium to supply the fast breeder at Clinch River.
The first test of that strategy is expected today when the House Committee on Science and Technology meets to vote on an amendment to keep building the Clinch River breeder. The amendment has already passed the subcommittee on fossill and nuclear energy research and is given at least an even chance of passing full panel.
Subcommittee Chairman Walter Flowers (D-Ala.) said last night he plans to offer an amendment today restoring the entire $117 million Carter cut from the Clinch River plant appropriation in his first budget.
"I think we need a full airing of the entire Clinch River project and we won't get it by stalling the project," Flowers said in a telephone interview, "I think we have the votes in the full committee to support that."
The Senate counterpart of the Flowers subcommittee is the subcommittee on energy research headed by Frank Church (D-Idaho), who said last night that he believes the United States needs the Clinch River fast breeder and the Barnwell reprocessing plant to avoid getting into what he called "nuclear isolationism."
"The plutonium genie is out of the bottle and cannot be stuffed back in again," Church said by telephone. "I don't think there's anything to be gained by the U.S. renouncing the breeder and stopping developing the technology if the rest of the world is not going to follow suit."
Church's subcommittee comes under the Senate Interior Committee chaired by Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash.), who has told colleagues he supports Church's views. In the case of the Barnwell reprocessing plant, Jackson has said it ought to be built to reprocess the world's plutonium so the plutonium can be accounted for.
"Sen. Jackson shares President Carter's concern about the diversion of plutonium to make nuclear weapons," said a key Jackson aide last night, "but he doesn't think you ought to throw the baby out with the bathwater."
While the Republican Policy Committee chaired by Sen. Howard H. Baker (R-Tenn.) has not yet taken a public stance on CLinch River and Barnwell, it is understood that the Republican group will come out against the Carter plan to delay the two plants.
"There are 38 Republicans in the Senate," said the aide to one key Senate Republican, "and if they all vote against the Carter plan Church and Jackson will bring in the votes to beat it."
In a speech he gave last week at the Massachuseets Institute of Technology, Church said ha doubted whether Carter could convince the rest of the world not to build reprocessing plants that produce plutonium and breeder plants that burn it.
The breeder reactor that produces more fuel than it burns is the "onlly technology which holds out the promise of relieving Europe and Japan of an unremitting dependence of foreign-held fuel supplies," Church said at MIT. "The flaw in the administration's plan is that it fails to offer a satisfactory substitute for the world's diminishing supply of oil."
The big fear of the Carter administration is that plutonium will become so plentiful through breeders and reprocessers that some nations or terrorists will use it to make nuclear weapons. Plutonium is the simplest metal to use to make an atomic weapon. It is the metal India used three years ago to explode its first nuclear weapon.
Carter has proposed meeting the world's energy needs with more world leaders have questioned whether there is enough uranium in the world to fill those needs.
"The administration's plan is viable only if the supply of natural uranium were virtually unlimited," Church said in his MIT speech. "This of course is anything but the case and we cannot ask other countries to exchange a depleting oil supply for another, natural uranium."