A final drive to defeat two controversial nuclear projects failed yesterday as the House passed the $1.3 billion appropriation bill for energy and water resources, which included money to keep alive the Clinch River fast breeder reactor and the Barnwell nuclear reprocessing plant.
If the House action is sustained in the Senate, it will mean that some 58 percent of the non-defense budget in the Department of Energy will now be spent on nuclear energy.
The energy and water bill also boosted research projects in alternative fuels, including solar, geothermal and small hydropower facilities, to about $148 million about what President Reagan had asked.
Most of the day was taken up with debate over the Clinch River Plutonium breeder project, with Rep. Lawrence Couglin (R-Pa.) offering an amendment to kill the project as he has done several times the past 10 years. "This is the closest we have ever come," said a spokesman for the congressman.
Although ground has not been broken on the Clinch River project, its opponents faulted it on grounds that the technology is already obsolete and that costs have gotten out of hand. The project is now about nine years behind schedule and has a cost overrun estimated between 450 percent and 700 percent with the possibility it will grow far larger.
Rep. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.), whose district houses many of the Clinch River project workers, helped put down the amendment, saying there is "massive uncertainty with respect to energy supply and demand in the future . . . we may need the breeder technology in the future" and the Clinch River project, as a research and demonstration project, will be essential to those future needs.
House Majority Leader Jim Wright (D-Tex.) reminded colleagues of the Hebrews wandering in the desert after gaining independence from Egypt: "They wearied of the costs of wandering in the desert. Some wanted to turn back, and now some want to turn back" on the breeder reactor after Congress has voted seven times to support it, he said. "It comes down to a question of whether we are willing to pay for our energy independence," he said.
The breeder remained alive on a vote of 206 to 186, which approved a $228 million appropriation for 1982. Another $400 million was approved for other breeder research projects.
The breeder is a type of nuclear reactor which uses low-grade, cheap uranium and burns it so as to produce another nuclear fuel, plutonium, as a byproduct.
At least 129 of those who voted for the Clinch River project were quickly called "budget hypocrites" by Congresswatch, the Ralph Nadar-affiliated group. The group said the 129 voted to cut programs for the poor and the elderly at the same time they voted for the Clinch River "boondoggle."
The Barnwell, S.C., nuclear fuel reprocessing plant may retain what little life it now has for another year, as the House approved a small amount to pay for some research to "keep the reprocessing option open," Rep. Carrol A. Campbell Jr. (R-S.C.) said.
The plant would take used nuclear fuel and filter out valuable leftovers for possible reuse.
At the last moment, the House also added an amendment that would prevent any of the money being spent for chauffeurs, cooks or other servants for public officials, or for cars that get less than 22 miles to the gallon.
Among the water projects approved in the bill were $189 million toward a canal from the Tennessee River to the Tombigbee River to make a short barge route to the Gulf of Mexico. Ignoring the administration's position, the House also voted $9 million for the Big South Fork water project at the Kentucky-Tennessee border.