The Energy Department yesterday recommended that the site of the canceled Clinch River breeder reactor project near Oak Ridge, Tenn., be converted into a temporary storage facility for high-level radioactive waste.

If approved by Congress, the Clinch River storage dump could be built for $1 billion and be ready to accept up to 15,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel from the nation's 88 commercial nuclear power plants starting in 1995 or 1996.

The Energy Department chose two alternate storage sites in Tennessee in case Congress does not approve the Clinch River site. One is on the Oak Ridge federal reservation; the other is at the Tennessee Valley Authority's canceled Hartsville nuclear plant site 40 miles northeast of Nashville.

"We looked at 11 sites and found the three sites in Tennessee to be the most attractive," said Ben C. Rusche, director of DOE's Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management. "The sites in Tennessee are either owned by DOE or had been approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a nuclear facility. They are also near enough to most of the nation's nuclear power plants to reduce the number of miles that spent nuclear fuel would have to be shipped to get it to the storage facility."

The DOE said cooled-down spent fuel in stainless steel and concrete casks would be moved by train and truck to Tennessee where it would be kept an unspecified time.

Later, it would be shipped west on special trains to a permanent repository. "If we have an interim storage facility, we'll be making no more than two or three fuel shipments a month," Rusche said. "If we don't have one, we'll be making as many as five shipments of spent fuel a day out of operating power plants to the permanent repository in the West."

The Energy Department must formally recommend to Congress its site selection by Jan. 1, 1986, just before the fiscal 1987 budget goes to Congress. The DOE estimated that the Monitored Retrievable Storage (MRS) facility then would take eight to 10 years to construct and win a federal license.

"Facilities identical to the proposed MRS have already been built, licensed and operated safely over the last 30 years," Rusche said. "For this reason alone, we are confident that we can adhere to the strictest safety standards."

The Clinch River breeder reactor project was killed by Congress in 1983 after years of controversy. Such a reactor would be designed to produce more nuclear fuel than it consumed, although the fuel "bred" by the reactor would be in a slightly different form.

The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 directed the DOE to identify three permanent nuclear waste repositories and to "study the need" for a facility where spent fuel could be stored before being shipped to a permanent repository.

The DOE's previously announced choices for a permanent repository are Yucca Mountain at the Nevada Test Site, the Hanford nuclear works in Washington and the Deaf Smith salt bed in Texas. Alternate sites are in Mississippi and Utah. Final site selections will be made by President Reagan, a decision now expected this fall.

Once three sites have been approved, two exploration shafts will be drilled at each site to the depth of the proposed repository, somewhere between 1,000 and 4,000 feet. The DOE then will recommend to the White House a single site for development as the nation's first nuclear repository, probably sometime in early 1991.

The nation's nuclear power plants have accumulated more than 10,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel, which they keep in "swimming pool" storage sites alongside the reactors. By 2000, the DOE estimates that 43,000 tons of spent fuel will have built up at reactor sites.

The DOE has signed contracts that obligate it to begin accepting spent fuel for final disposal by Jan. 31, 1998. If the proposed site is approved, Rusche said, the interim storage park could be ready in time to meet those obligations.