If the Clinch River in eastern Tennessee could talk, its flowing waters would be breathing a sigh of relief. For the Breeder Reactor, which the American taxpayers were going to pay for without discernible limit, will not be built after all. And the river’s name, Clinch, will not become permanently associated with probably the single biggest, most wasteful, most hazardous, civilian, technological boondoggle in our history.
The end for this project came on the Senate floor in the late afternoon oil October 26 when 56 Senators outvoted 40 Senators to deny any further financing. The breeder project, once estimated to cost $400 million, now estimated by the General Accounting Office of the Congress to reach r8 billion, will be closed down. Even its most ardent supporters, Senator Howard Baker (R – Tenn.) and Senator James McClure (R – Idaho) acknowledged after the vote that this properly embattled way to generate electricity will not be revived.
Outside the Senate in a waiting room were flocks of corporate lobbyists whose companies had been feeding at the breeder trough for years. One and a half billion dollars have already been spent, mostly for designs and supplier parts, and these corporate welfarists were drooling for more. The lobbyists were just punctuating the climax of meticulous lobbying effort, in conjunction with the Reagan Administration, by the likes of Westinghouse and the private electric utilities. This time the corporate lobbyists lost and in a Republican-controlled Senate at that!
How did this defeat of powerful and wealthy pressure groups come about? Because there is emerging on the American political scene a new coalition of progressive and conservative forces opposed to direct and indirect taxpayer subsidies to corporations. Working against the Breeder Reactor for many months were Public Citizen, the National Taxpayers Union, the Heritage Foundation, the Council for a Competitive Economy and a number of environmental groups.
The anti-breeder drive has been building for three years. Last December, the House of Representatives had already voted against continuing to finance technology in which the beneficiaries — the electric companies — would riot invest their money, except for a very nominal sum. In a desperate effort to salvage the breeder, a new cost-sharing proposal for private investors was devised. This maneuver only made matters worse for breeder advocates. The Congressional Budget Office judged this new plan as costing “almost $250 million more than if Congress chose to fully fund the project.” The plan would have taken the breeder project off-budget, where its enormous cost over-runs could be concealed and shielded from Congressional oversight.
A host of liberal and conservative economists, including a report for Senator John Heinz (R-Penn.) by the Rand Corporation, condemned the breeder nightmare. Nearly a decade ago, nuclear physicists believed that the wrong engineering design for the breeder reactor was selected. The evidence was formidable from many quarters against continuing to compound this interminably cost-plus waste-maker.
But it took more than evidence. It took grass-roots awareness of hot.’ unfairly taxpayers were being exploited, of how these breeder monies were coming from the Department of Energy at the expense of practical energy conservation and solar programs, and of how tricky the last-ditch stratagem of cost-sharing had become. Under the guise of shifting some of the breeder cost to the utilities, the plan actually put the total risk of failure on the taxpayer and arranged, for transferring ownership of the reactor to the private investors if it was completed.
The cost-sharing plan was really a riskless big, tax-shelter plan for investors. One clause even provided for the taxpayers indemnifying investors from changes in federal tax laws! “That was the -final straw,” said one southern newspaper editor.
Large corporations may no longer have it both ways — touting free enterprise to make their profits and rushing to Washington to make up their losses. Not only the taxpayer-citizen but small business, which is expected to take its risks of failure unaided by any Washington bailouts or guarantees, is stirring the streams of revolt. For the corporate welfarists, the Clinch River might just become known as the rebelling taxpayers’ Rubicon.