LIKE A NINE-LIVED cat, the nuclear breeder reactor lobby has sprung to life again -- but with less justification for its proposals than ever before. Despite the fact that the time when breeders might be needed is receding ever farther into the future, a congressional committee has just added more than a quarter of a billion dollars to the administration's budget request for next year's breeder program. The need for breeders depends on a high growth rate in the demand for electricity. Utilities used to predict that growth has been a fraction of that amount, and last year it was 0.2 percent.
Breeders, of course, require reprocessing plants. A group calling itself Scientists and Engineers for Secure Energy has written to the president urging that reprocessing -- which was indefinitely deferred because of its weapons proliferation dangers -- be immediately revived. Though the signatories include several Nobel laureates and other eminent men and women, the letter distorts the results of the International Nuclear Fuel Cycle Evaluation on which it is based. The INFCE report -- like any controversial document reached by compromise -- contains something for everyone. At least one sentence supporting any nuclear viewpoint can be found somewhere in its thousands of pages. Yet even some of the snippets quoted in the scientists' letter drastically alter the immediate context from which they are taken.
Perhaps the strongest argument used to promote breeders and reprocessing is that the United States is being left behind, all alone, while the rest of the world gallops off determined and united toward a heavily nuclear future. Although some countries' official pronouncements paint just such a picture, the reality behind the bullish rhetoric is often different.
Last month, the Swedish, by an overwhelming majority, voted to phase out their country's nuclear program within 25 years. In both Switzerland and the United Kingdom, repeated government efforts to begin construction of nuclear waste facilities have been blocked by local opposition. In Finland, in the largest demonstrations since the days of the Vietnam War, thousands protested the construction of a Soviet-designed reactor. And in Germany, after years of government promotion and public controversy, plans to begin construction of a reprocessing plant have been put off indefinitely.
France -- the country most heavily committed to nuclear power and to breeders -- is having its troubles as well. Government plans to build a four-reactor complex in Brittany have been upset by mass demonstrations involving more than 40,000 people. The breeder program, the centerpiece of future nuclear plans, is threatened by recent projections that put the cost of generating power from breeders at more than double the comparable costs of power from non-breeder reactors. The official response is that when the cost of uranium climbs high enough, breeders will become competitive. But the price of uranium is falling, not climbing. For the first time, French businessmen are beginning to wonder aloud whether the government's breeder program is consuming more of the country's available investment capital than it is worth.
Before Congress responds to the urgings of the breeder-reprocessing lobbies, therefore, it should take a hard look at the facts: projected nuclear growth in the next three decades, breeder costs, uranium costs and the experience abroad. Together, they spell out a pretty convincing case against any further near-term investments in the breeder.