Breeder Politics


IT MAY HAVE BEEN Sun Day earlier this week, but anyone who thinks events of that kind signal a move towards alternative energy sources has a nasty surprise coming. In fact, the situation is getting worse--at least in terms of nuclear power. Recent months have brought significant evidence of a move away from the position of nuclear non-proliferation Jimmy Carter outlined in the early days of his administration.

First came approval of plans to build a number of new nuclear plants; then--last week--the announcement of a sale of enriched uranium to India. Perhaps the best example, however, of the Carter administration's softening of its earlier stand on nuclear energy is in its attitude towards the liquid metal fast-breeder reactor and the deadly plutonium it employs. The story of the watering down of the anti-breeder position is a many-faceted one involving Executive-Congressional power struggles, the background and geographical origins of individuals involved in the dispute, and questions of illusion versus reality in the creation of a national energy policy. In the end, though, political debate over the breeder--and more specifically the Clinch River, Tenn. breeder project--aptly symbolizes some of the vexing problems of the whole energy question.

Designed as a demonstration breeder for the U.S., Clinch River has been jinxed from the start. When Richard Nixon gave the go-ahead in 1971, its cost was projected at $699 million. Seven years later the price tag is $2.2 billion and ground has yet to be broken in the Tennessee valley. What's more, the architectural firm given the contract for the project wrote in a 1973 report that Clinch River was "one of the worst sites ever selected for a nuclear power plant based on its topography and rock conditions." And with the increased amounts of uranium now available, the advantages of the breeder--namely its need for less uranium than conventional reactors--are irrelevant. It's all pretty cut and dried. The project is clearly premature; the wrong idea in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But when Carter attempted to kill Clinch River in April of last year, the reasoning downplayed the economic and geological arguments against this particular plant. Instead, he worked from the broader, far more compelling and important opinions he voiced in the previous fall's campaign. The risk of further nuclear proliferation, the President said in withdrawing administration support from Clinch River, "would be vastly increased by the further spread of sensitive technologies which entail direct access to plutonium or other weapons-useable material."

The reversal of the previous administration's policy on the breeder was extraordinarily sharp. It seemed as if things might really be different. The Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA) ordered more than 25,000 pro-breeder pamphlets destroyed. The speeches coming out of the administration made frequent mention of alternative energy sources.


THEN THE DIFFICULTIES began, and they emerged, strangely enough, in what has until recently seemed the most liberal of all government branches: the Congress.

It is indicative of the costs involved in such projects that in order to kill Clinch River, Carter had to propose that $33 million be spent to do so--even though construction has yet to begin. Congress wanted to see the project continue, and that took a lot more money. Last summer, the House voted $150 million for fiscal 1978; the Senate $75 million and the conference committee settled on $80 million.

Normally liberal Senators like Frank Church (D-Ida.) found themselves arguing in favor of home-state nuclear interests and against non-proliferation. Church called Carter's policy "a formula for nuclear isolation." Tennessee's pork-barreling delegation plus other, more conservative members of Congress who don't seem to find plutonium all that dangerous, took more blatantly pro-nuclear positions. Rep. Mike McCormick (D-Wash.), a big breeder booster, said "not developing the breeder is like saying we shouldn't have automobiles because somebody can make a Molotov cocktail out of gasoline."

What happened next suggests how much has changed since the days of the so-called Imperial Presidency: Carter vetoed the bill in November (his first exercise of that power), but Clinch River ended up with $150 million for 1978 anyway, almost twice as much as had been voted, then vetoed. An override hadn't even been necessary. Breeder-backers Sens. Henry Jackson (D-Wash.) and Howard Baker (D-Tenn.) easily subverted the veto--and got extra appropriations to boot--by securing a General Accounting Office (GAO) report saying Carter's termination of Clinch River was "substantially inconsistent" with the project's original long-term authorization. In other words, as Sen. James McClure (R-Idaho) put it: the Clinch River appropriation is "in effect, self-authorizing;" it needed to be killed with a specific bill, not just left out of a budget as Carter had done. The senators had seen the President's plan as akin to Nixon's impoundment of funds and that view had prevailed.

Whether the lessons of Nixonian history were applied a bit too exactly in this case is unclear. What is more significant about Clinch River is the symbol it represents--a symbol not only of continued support for a strong nuclear program, but of Congress's determination to be the guiding force in the creation of a national energy policy.

Particularly unsettling for those who hope to kill the breeder is the dawning understanding that the majorities that make up that guiding force are not comprised solely of members responding to special interests. Neither is it a conservative coalition. To the chagrin of anti-nuke activists, not even the breeder and its hated plutonium--much less the conventional, safer reactors--can shake up the moderates who control Congress. "We are not going to, pell-mell, rush into a 'breeder age' or 'plutonium economy' or anything else," argued classic middle-of-the-roader, Rep. John Anderson (D-Ill.) recently in an attempt to discredit the catch-phrases used against Clinch River development. Anderson, like many others, voted for proceeding with Clinch River as "an insurance policy."

IT IS DISTRESSING to find that the Carter administration, for all the lip service it has paid to non-proliferation, now finds itself endorsing precisely the same position. The President still objects to the Clinch River project, but the arguments are now phrased in economic terms. Secretary of Energy James R. Schlesinger '50, who stood beside Nixon when he first announced plans for Clinch River and has since consistently surrounded himself with pro-nuclear staffers from the old Atomic Energy Commission, goes before Congress to speak against Clinch River on the economic terms he believes to be the government's best strategy. The tactic "delights" pro-Clinch River lobbyists from the Westinghouse Corp., for instance, who can combat these arguments far better than the non-proliferation ones of last year.

Meanwhile, the administration has given the go-ahead to studying the possibility of building a 600-900 megawatt breeder, much bigger than Clinch River. The plans include the requisite "non-proliferation study" and a Department of Energy spokesman says the government is "deferring large-scale commitment until all the facts are in," but one can't help wondering what changed Carter's attitude towards breeder technology in the space of a year. As on other energy issues, the concessions by the administration have been substantial. It seems the relationship between branches has come full circle in recent years. The President, instead of leading Congress as did so many of his immediate predecessors, has begun to follow it.