A divided Senate Energy Committee will consider a fresh proposal today to keep alive the controversial $2 billion plutonium breeder that President Carter is determined to cancel.
Under a counterattack by the White House, the 18 members of the committee will meet at 10 a.m. to discuss and presumably vote on a new compromise plan that would provide $75 million this coming fiscal year to continue work on the breeder in Clinch River, Tenn.
That is half of what the House Science Committee has already voted for the project and $45 million less than pro-breeder senators were shooting for earlier this week.
"What I would like to do is settle on a formula that keeps Clinch River in abeyance while we study it," said Sen. Franch Church (D-Idaho), chairman of the Energy Research Subcommittee, in a clear case of backpedaling from his earlier proposal. "There's no question the committee is in a quandary over this project as things stand right now."
The proposal to be discussed today is the second compromise plan Church has brought before the full committee. Church Wednesday suggested a plan that would have provided $120 million for Clinch River this year, thinking he had the votes for passage, but the committee turned out to be evenly divided (9 for, 9 against) on the issue, and it never came to a vote.
Earlier this week, a telephone check of the 18 committee members suggested the original Church compromise would pass by an 11-to-7, vote but Sens. Spark M. Matsunaga (D-Hawaii) and Wendell H. Ford (D-Ky.) decided against the $120 million plan and split the committee.
"The White House wasn't heard from much until this week," one committee aide said yesterday, "but I guess they made up for it with some real tough lobbying."
"There's no question the committee is divided on Clinch River," Church said. "But I believe they will favorably consider this latest plan. I think that if we hold it in abeyance for awhile it will not conflict with Carter's objective."
Church said he believes the committee will go along with his newest compromise because the only other alternative would be to cancel Clinch River, which Church said would cost anywhere from $250 million to $500 million to do.
Church said the cancellation costs run that high because of contracts the government has already signed and because of lawsuits he said well surely be filed against the government by contractors who have spent their own money on Clinch River.
The $120 million Church proposed earlier this week would have resulted in a year's construction delay, meaning the plant would be finished in 1985 instead of 1984. A $75 million authorization preusmably would mean at least an 18-month delay.
On Wednesday, as part of the battling over the breeder, opponents of the project leaked to reporters a four-year-old memorandum criticizing Clinch River, suggesting among other things that the site was expensive and some aspects of the design were unsafe.
The memo had been written by a staff member working for Burns & Roe, the New Jersey engineering firm doing the design work on Clinch River. Dated July 6, 1973, the memo suggested that Atomic Energy Commission mismanagement of Clinch River would force a two-year delay on the project that would add at least $60 million to the project's costs.
The memo also worried about the future of former AEC Commissioner James Ramey and Breeder Project Manager Milton Shaw, both of who were later dismissed by onetime AEC Chairman Dixy Lee Ray. The memo suggested that if Ramey and Shaw left the AEC Burns & Roe might lost its best contacts inside the AEC.
A memo distributed around Capitol Hill yesterday by Burns & Roe disavowed the earlier memo, saying that the Clinch River difficulties it raised had been cleared up in the last four years.
"Any information Mr. Ramey provided was occasional and of a nature properly available to any interested parties," Burns & Roe said, denying any hint of a cozy relationship it might have had with Ramey. "We are extremely disturbed by any implications with respect to normal and perfectly proper contacts with former Commissioner Ramey."