The House Science Committee refused yesterday, for the moment, to go along with President Carter's request to put off construction of a new type of nuclear power plant fueled by plutonium.
Carter originally had proposed proceeding with the demonstration fast breeder power plant at Clinch River, Tenn., but at a slower rate than requested by the Ford administration. However, last month Carter called for an indefinite delay as part of his effort to persuade other nations not to turn for energy to plutonium, which is the simplest metal to use to build an atomic bomb. He wants to prevent proliferation of material that can be turned into weapons.
Yesterday the committee voted to keep the original $150 million Carter request in the $6.5 billion energy research and development authorization bill, but with the understanding that further hearings will be held during the next two or three weeks, before the bill goes to the floor, and that the committee may take another vote and change its mind.
The committee voted 25 to 12 against cutting out the funds as Carter proposed and then voted 38 to 0 to keep the funds in the bill, subject to further hearings.
Rep. Walter Flowers (D-Ala.), subcommittee chairman who proposed this course, said the committee action placed it in a "neutral" position and did not reject the President's request. Flowers said the committee has had no testimony on the President's changed position on the breeder reactor and needs a complete record to justify its position on the House floor.
Flowers' amendment left the money in the bill and also struck a provision added in subcommittee by Rep. Marilyn Lloy (D-Tenn.) which directed that the Clinch River plant be changed to a plant to test nonplutonium fuels such as thorium. Lloyd supported Flowers' proposal.
Rep. Richard (D-N.Y.), who considers the plutonium reactor a menace to world peace and a worthless "dog" from a technological and economic standpoint, complained that Flowers' proposal was not neutral but endorsed the project. But Flowers insisted no one should read anything into the action.
Committee Chairman Olin Teague (D-Tex.) said that under the new congressional budget procedures it will be very difficult to raise spending ceilings after May 15, the end of this week. Several members appeared persuaded to go along with Flowers by this argument that the rules make it easier to cut rather than increase figures in the bill after the hearings.
One reason advanced for holding more hearings is that Carter has just returned from a European trip where he tried without apparent success to persuade European and Japanese leaders not to go ahead with plans to move into the plutonium era in order to relieve their critical energy needs.
"We don't know if the President has changed his mind on this," said Rep. Jerome A. Ambro (D-N.Y.). "His position on the ($50 income tax) rebate was perfectly clear until he changed his mind. He is returning from a conference where the Japanese and West Germans have been howling about this."
Some committee members, including Rep. John Wydler (R-N.Y.), wanted to push forward at a faster pace.
"There is danger in all nuclear programs," said Wydler. "We can't stop making gunpowder because it might be used. We should proceed to develop this new technology."
Rep. Mike McCormack (D-Wash.), an atomic scientist, chided Ottinger for calling Clinch River a "dog" before it has been built. He said plutonium-fueled plants hold "a chance to provide energy independence!"
Rep. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who offered the losing amendment to carry out the President's request, said the "issue is not whether we are going to have a breeder program but whether we are going to push ahead with a plutonium-based program before our government conducts talks with other countries to try to get them to agree that they will not push ahead with plutonium-based programs."