The whine of chain saws and the roar of bulldozers reverberated yesterday across the rolling hills that rise above a bend in the Clinch River as work crews finally began clearing the 292-acre site of the controversial Clinch River breeder reactor.
The start of site preparation, which marks another milestone in the 11-year saga of this advanced nuclear power plant, was made possible late Tuesday when the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta reversed a lower court order barring ground clearing until a final construction permit is granted.
Describing the long-delayed start of work in a telephone interview, project director Percy Brewington said he slipped out to the east Tennessee site Tuesday night, only hours after the court ruling, and cut down the first tree, a 30-foot oak, as his wife, daughter and dog looked on.
"I had been waiting five years to do that," Brewington said, adding that he was handing out pieces of the oak as souvenirs. "We were about at this same point -- ready to begin site clearing -- in 1977 when President Carter tried to stop the project, and he did indeed halt the licensing which effectively stopped the construction."
Congress continued to appropriate money for the plutonium-fueled breeder, which would produce more fuel than it uses, despite Carter's efforts to kill it because of his concern about the worldwide spread of plutonium that could be used in nuclear weapons. With the Reagan administration now backing the project, Congress appears ready to provide the funds necessary to keep the breeder moving toward the target of completion in 1989.
Even though 102 members of Congress had signed a petition seeking an immediate vote on cutting off funding of Clinch River, the House yesterday overwhelmingly voted not to permit this to be brought up as an amendment to the continuing resolution that will keep the government operating beyond the end of this fiscal year.
The next opportunity that critics will have to attempt to halt the project will come when the energy and water appropriations bill for fiscal 1983, which contains $227.5 million for the project, is taken up by the House after the November elections. The bill, with continued funding for Clinch River intact, was approved by the House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday.
The start of actual work at the site yesterday was politically important to the Department of Energy, because breeder opponents have made much of the fact that more than $1 billion has been spent on the project even before construction had begun. The Energy Department's most recent cost estimate for the breeder is $3.6 billion, which congressional critics charge understates the total cost of the project by more than $6 billion.