The Clinch River breeder reactor, as a project, is outmoded, expensive, dangerous and unneeded. Except for that, it is fine. But while other far more worthy uses of taxpayer dollars have fallen prey to budget cuts, the Clinch River project survives, a monument to the power of pork-barrel politics.
Having been turned down twice before by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the administration has applied again to the NRC for permission to start building the reactor facility. Despite a recent GAO report calling for more testing of the reactor's steam generators, the administration let a contract this week for their manufacture and is also determined to push ahead in preparing the site at Oak Ridge Tennessee.
The administration claims that a swift start on the site will save the taxpayers $28 million a year. It would also undercut the objection of critics that, after expenditures of over $1 billion, there isn't even a hole in the ground to show for it. But the fact that taxpayers' money has been wasted in the past is hardly a justification for wasting still more--and Clinch River would cost over $2 billion more to complete--at least.
Clinch River supporters claim that the 10-year delay on the project has retarded U.S. development of alternative energy sources. In fact, the delay has saved the country from investing in a design that has been outmoded by newer technology. Terminating the project would not mean that the United States is dropping out of the breeder reactor field altogether, since Congress has appropriated several hundred million dollars for research and development on other breeder projects.
The primary reason that Clinch River is such a waste of money, however, is that breeder reactors are simply not going to be needed by the United States at any time in the foreseeable future. The ostensible rationale for breeders is that they will eventually produce more nuclear fuel than they consume. It was put forward over 10 years ago when energy demand was escalating and uranium appeared to be in short supply. Since then, energy demand has more or less flattened out--to the point where utilities are canceling the much less expensive conventional plants--and uranium supplies have soared. That's why private industry has showed almost no interest in investing in the project and why the case for further public investment is so weak.
Apart from the inescapable--and welcome--fact of diminished energy demand, the nuclear industry is suffering from the lack of a publicly acceptable policy for disposing of nuclear wastes and from the failure to solve the technical and financial problems surrounding the Three Mile Island accident. If the administration really wants to do something to help the ailing nuclear industry, these are much better avenues for further public investment.