The Reagan administration yesterday made a new bid to start construction of the long-delayed $3.2 billion Clinch River Breeder Reactor, asking the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for the third time for permission to begin preparing the site at Oak Ridge, Tenn.
"We anticipate that the NRC will look favorably on this request and hope it will be granted within a few weeks," said Gordon L. Chipman, deputy assistant secretary of energy for nuclear reactor programs. "We would then begin site preparation immediately."
The administration's new effort to get the NRC to agree to expedite the start of work on the Clinch River site came only six weeks after the commission rejected its previous request, but it reflected the Energy Department's belief that another bid would be successful.
The NRC on May 17th turned down the previous request when Commissioner James K. Asselstine--a Reagan appointee who had been sworn in only hours before--cast the decisive vote against the proposal on the grounds that to do otherwise might "raise serious questions regarding my own independence and objectivity."
Asselstine said at the time, however, that the Energy Department could submit a new request for consideration in a "deliberative manner." While Asselstine was not available yesterday, sources said the fact that the Energy Department had resubmitted the request suggested the administration thought he now was likely to vote with Chairman Nunzio J. Palladino and Commissioner Thomas M. Roberts in favor of the proposal.
The Reagan administration's efforts to expedite the start of construction work at Clinch River come at a time when opponents of the breeder reactor are mounting their strongest effort yet to block the project.
The Taxpayers Coalition Against Clinch River, which was formed two weeks ago by a group of environmental, church, labor and consumer organizations, is hoping to persuade Congress to cut off further federal funding for the breeder project when the 1983 Energy and Water Appropriations bill is brought to the House floor later this month.
Congressional efforts a year ago to delete funding for Clinch River failed by 20 votes in the House and only two votes in the Senate.
The administration, in submitting its proposal yesterday, emphasized that approval of its request would not require waiver of any requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act or the Atomic Energy Act, and that all environmental and safety findings required by the NRC would be made prior to actual issuance of a construction permit.
Energy Department officials said they anticipated that the process of clearing and grading the 271-acre site would take only a few weeks, after which contractors would begin building access roads and digging the hole for the foundation of the reactor containment building. In the months that followed, construction workers also would build a railroad access spur, a wharf to handle river barges, and some storage facilities.
This phase of the project, Chipman said yesterday, would take about 14 months and cost about $40 million.
Chipman said the next step, if the authorization to begin site preparation is approved, would be for the Energy Department to go back to the NRC to seek a "limited work authorization that would enable us to begin pouring concrete into the hole we dig for the containment building, and bring it up to grade level.
"But we won't actually begin any construction on the plant until an actual construction permit is issued," he said.
While the Energy Department contends in its new request to the NRC that accelerating the start of site preparation will save taxpayers "no less than $28 million per year," the Taxpayer's Coalition opposing the project argues that halting Clinch River in fact ultimately will save taxpayers over $2 billion.
The Clinch River project, which was originally authorized by Congress in 1970, has cost $1.1 billion to date and estimates of the total cost to complete it now exceed $3.2 billion.
The Energy Department also announced yesterday that it had awarded to Westinghouse Nuclear Components Division a contract to manufacture 10 steam generator plant units for Clinch River for $34 million. The General Accounting Office last month had sharply criticized the proposed purchase, and called for more testing of the steam generators before a contract was awarded.