IF A CAT HAS nine lives, how many does the Clinch River breeder reactor have? It's true that there was no money for Clinch River in the energy appropriations bill that Congress just passed for the coming year. But you would be incautious to assume that the project is dead. It's a little too soon to celebrate.

Perhaps some money will be tucked into a supplemental appropriations bill. Or perhaps someone in Congress will start hearings on legislation for a financial reorganization. Meanwhile, construction crews are working double shifts in Tennessee on what they carefully call "site preparation," and three-quarters of the components have already been ordered or actually delivered. Hurrying to spend more money, the reactor project's managers keep asking whether, in view of all the money already spent, it doesn't make sense to go ahead and finish it.

No, it doesn't. The resistance to the breeder reactor is being led in the Senate by fiscal conservatives who have pointed out the very expensive fallacy in that logic.

But there's another and even stronger reason to abandon the breeder. The breeder runs on plutonium, a substance that is not only highly toxic but capable of being fabricated with only moderate difficulty into nuclear weapons. That job does not necessarily require the resources of a government. A sophisticated terrorist organization could make a bomb from stolen plutonium. Deliberately to develop a technology that requires this substance, and introduces it into the civilian economy, would be wanton.

The breeder was conceived at a time when uranium was scarce. But since then enormous reserves of uranium have been discovered, and it is clear that demand through at least the first half of the next century will be a small fraction of the original estimates. Recycling plutonium, with all its enormous risks, cannot be justified by any visible need.

Congress did not quite explicitly kill the Clinch River breeder in its recent appropriations bill. It only said that there would be no more money until there was an acceptable financial reorganization--meaning a larger contribution from the electric utilities that are supposed to be the beneficiaries. Some utilities, still committed to the idea, are now pushing for loans guaranteed by the government. If Chrysler got guaranteed loans, why not Clinch River?

The answer is that neither the utilities nor the federal government has the money to spare. The further and stronger answer is that, even if it were free, the breeder is the wrong path for nuclear energy to take.