A House committee voted yesterday to kill the Clinch River (Tenn.) Breeder Reactor, handling the White House a major defeat in energy policy and justifying it with the administration's own budget-cutting rhetoric.
A coalition of fiscal conservatives and nuclear critics on both sides of the aisle, led by three Republicans, voted 22 to 18 in the House Science and Technology Committee to cut $254 million for the breeder from the 1982 budget. Heavy lobbying from both sides preceded the vote, which was a cliffhanger right to the end. repeated attempts to kill the reactor in recent years have failed.
"The vote was a clear message that the economy cannot support a project of this magnitude with so little surety of its value in the end," said Rep. Claudine Schneider (R-R.I.), who offered the killing amendment.
The vote, if sustained in the full House and the Senate, will save an estimated total of $3 billion in completion costs for the 350-megawatt reactor, which was begun in 1970.
Supporters argued that it is needed as a future energy supply and to maintain a U.S. presence in international energy markets. In a breeder reactor, the processing of plutonium "breeds" more fuel than it consumes.
"This is the first vote but it certainly is not the final word," said Senate Majority Leader Howard H. Baker of Tennessee, adding he is "confident" that the Senate will restore funds for his state's project.
Breeder foes had regareded Clinch River as a political favor to Baker from President Reagan while conservatives called it an exception to overall budget-cutting efforts. But Schneider and Reps. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) and Vin Weber (R-Minn.) turned the argument around, quoting liberally from chief budget-chopper David Stockman, now head of the Office of Management and Budget, who attacked Clinch River when he was a congressman.
During heated debate in a hearing room packed with lobbyists, Schneider argued that the Tennessee project had become the pet of "a confederacy of corporate interests" who had tried to make it a symbol of support for nuclear power in general. Gregg, who said later he had to turn down a plea from Vice President Bush on the issue, noted his own support for the controversial Seabrook nuclear power plant in his district but said he could not support Clinch River.
"This is not a referendum on nuclear power," he said. "It's a referendum on economics."
Schneider said Clinch River backers could no longer defend their arguments that the breeder would solve a future shortage of uranium fuel, meet a high energy demand or replace foreign oil.
Rep. Marilyn Lloyd Bouquard (D-Tenn.), who led the fight for the project in her district, said that killing it would waste $2.8 billion in funds already spent or needed to close it down.
Antinuclear groups allied with the conservative National Taxpayers Union launched their successful lobbying effort quietly six weeks ago. "It shows that the nuclear budget is not sacrosanct," said Renee Parsons of Friends of the Earth.