The House yesterday handed President Carter a major defeat by authorizing full-scale development of the plutonium-burning Clinch River fast breeder nuclear reactor, a project the President wants phased out.

By a vote of 246 to 162, the House voted down a White House-backed amendment that would have authorized spending next year of only $33 million on the project, just enough to conclude current research.

By an even wider margin, 277 to 129, the House also knocked down a compromise $75 million amendment that would have delayed construction for one year at the Clinch River site, near Oak Ridge, Tenn., but kept the current scientific teams working. This is what the Senate has voted to do.

Instead, the House approved $150 million for next year, a figure that would allow both research and initial construction on the $2 billion project to begin.

The Clinch River reactor was planned as one of several means to produce electricity from nuclear fuels. Instead of using up nuclear fuels - such as uranium - in the process, the Clinch River reactor, if it is successful, would yield as a by product about 40 per cent more plutonium than it consumes.

Last April, President Carter announced he wanted the world to turn away from plutonium as a source of fuel for nuclear electricity-producing reactors. His reason was a desire to limit the amount of plutonium is also the key ingredient in nuclear weapons.

Rep. George Brown (D-Calif.) who wrote the Carter-backed amendment, stressed the President's position in urging the amendment's adoption.

Brown added that the proposed reactor was "inherently more expensive" than other processes now being studied.

He was supported by members concerned over nuclear proliferation around the world, particularly those on the House International Relations Committee.

Rep. Thomas Downey (D-N.Y.) held up a soccer-ball-size paper model and said plutonium "the size of a grapefruit" weighing 10 kilograms placed inside the ball, surrounded by plastic explosive material, could "be turned in to a 10 kiloton nuclear weapon."

Key members of the House Committee on Science and Technology as well as of the Armed Services Committee opposed the Carter position and they easily prevailed.

Rep. Mike McCormack (D-Wash.) said dozens of nations already have the raw materials to make their own nuclear weapons without the plutonium that would be generated from fast breeders such as Clinch River.

Rep. Melvin Price (DIll.), the 72-year-old chairman of the Armed Services Committee who headed the Joint Atomic Energy Committee which first approved the fast breeder five years ago, declared he was still for it and said "the situation this afternoon is no different than it was 20 years ago when we met with serious opposition to the first generation of nuclear reactors."

Even with yesterday's strong House vote. Clinch River still has a long way to go.

A House-Senate compromsie remains to be worked out. Then the President must sign the energy research authorization that contains Clinch River.

Speaker Thomas F. (Tip) O'Neill (D-Mass.) told reporters yesterday, before the House vote, that he had informed the President at a White House breakfast that the Clinch River vote "didn't look promising" for the adminstration.

"He showed disappointment," O'Neill said, "because the White House had worked exceptionally hard" trying to drum up House support. O'Neill added, in answer to a question, that Carter did not discuss the possibility of a veto.

Even if the President should sign the authorization bill, that money would still have to be appropriated. With only a month or so left before Congress ends its session, it would be easy for Carter supporters to delay that supplemental appropriation.