A congressional showdown is coming this summer over the Reagan-backed Clinch River Breeder Reactor plant that conservative taxpayer groups have dubbed a “technological dinosaur.”
Inside Congress a coalition of Republicans. and Democrats, led by Rep. Claudine Schneider, R-R.I., is pushing to cut off taxpayer funds for this 10-year-old project, which has already cost $1 billion and has not yet broken ground outside Knoxville, Tenn. They came close to doing just that last year. But Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker, R-Tenn., blocked them by a narrow margin of two votes in the Senate. For Senator Baker, the chief justification for Clinch River, and the equally wasteful Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, is that they are multibillion-dollar pork barrels for his home state.
Baker, of course, does not put his case that way. But many of the leading pro-nuclear advocates in this country have concluded that the Clinch River breeder project design is seriously obsolete and that the rationale for the plant–a shortage of uranium and a fast growth of electric power demand–no longer prevails. A recent General Accounting Office report concluded that the United States won’t need a fast breeder nuclear reactor until the year 2025 at the earliest.
The overwhelming technical and economic case against the breeder project is that it won’t work and that it will be prohibitively expensive and dangerous. A Princeton University scientific team brought these arguments together in a report a few years ago. But even the Department of Energy’s own blue-ribbon panel of experts, the Energy Research Advisory Board, last year called for delaying construction.
As early as 1973, Burns and Roe, Inc., a leading Clinch River subcontractor and engineering firm, declared in an internal memorandum that “it is already clear that the project results will be extremely poor.” But as long as the taxpayer faucet keeps flowing, why should any of the contractors bail out? The original estimated cost of the Clinch River breeder was $400 million. That was in 1971. In the following year, the estimate rose to $700 million; by 1977 the figure was $2 billion. The current estimate by the Department of Energy is $3.57 billion!
The facts about the breeder were known to Reagan’s budget director, David Stockman, when he was a congressman in the ’70s. At that time, brave Dave called it “totally incompatible with our free-market approach to energy policy.” Now he only grumbles (italics) sotto voce, (end italics) because he does not have the courage to take on Sen. Howard Baker. Stockman feels more comfortable tackling his huge federal deficit by taking on food-stamp and health programs for the poor.
That President Ronald Reagan refuses to get the Clinch River boondoggle off the taxpayers’ backs damages his credibility. As one free-market enthusiast asked: “If the electric utilities don’t want to pay for this project, why should the taxpayer?” Actually, American taxpayers are bearing only over 90 percent of the cost, with the utilities putting in a total frozen amount of $257 million–before generous tax writeoffs.
A group of liberal and conservative organizations has formed to persuade Congress to stop the breeder once and for all this summer. They call themselves the Taxpayers Coalition Against Clinch River (110 Maryland Ave. NE, Washington, D.C. 20002, telephone 202-547-0191). The coalition includes the National Taxpayers Union (NTU) , Friends of the Earth, Congress Watch, the United Methodist Church and the Council for a Competitive Economy.
Jim Davidson, chairman of the conservative NTU and spokesman for the coalition, declared: “It is unconscionable in this period of economic crisis to waste critically short taxpayer dollars on a project that is of such questionable benefit.” In announcing the all-out citizens’ campaign, Davidson pledged that “our networks are in place…. We have never been more serious or more dedicated to pulling the plug on this outrageously expensive, unnecessary and outdated project.”
If you want to help stop the breeder’s drain on your tax pocketbook, write the coalition at the above address and ask them for a list of how members of Congress voted last year on this issue in order to see where your representatives and senators stood. Then let them know where you stand.