“Wandering in the Desert”The Clinch River Breeder Reactor Debate in the U.S. Congress, 1972–1983
The experimental Clinch River breeder reactor, approved by the U.S. Congress in 1970 for construction in East Tennessee, would have used plutonium instead of uranium. The project drew the ire of environmentalists who insisted that plutonium was too dangerous for commercial use, along with opponents of nuclear proliferation. Tennessee’s representatives in Congress, however, desired the jobs that the project would create, and formed legislative coalitions to ensure continued appropriations for the project. Funding lasted until 1983, when fiscal conservatives, concerned about ballooning cost projections, joined with environmentalists to defund the breeder. Interpretations of U.S. nuclear policy in the 1980s have often revolved around the Three Mile Island meltdown’s aftermath, but Clinch River was not affected by the incident. Instead, the Clinch River controversy revolved around other unrelated issues. The Clinch River story therefore offers a corrective to accounts that privilege national public opinion at the expense of other variables.
The United States Congress approved plans in 1970 for an experimental plutonium reactor on the Clinch River in East Tennessee, near the atomic city of Oak Ridge, and appropriated initial funds in 1972. Tennessee’s representatives in Congress, especially the powerful senator, Howard Baker, Jr., ensured that money kept flowing reliably for years afterward, much of which supported local engineering and design jobs. More than ten years after the initial appropriation and after continual infusions of cash for the reactor, Congress voted to discontinue further money, effectively ending the project. After more than a decade, although a portion of land had been cleared along the Clinch, and some of the necessary components had been built by an Indiana manufacturer, no structures were ever installed. Hundreds [End Page 26] of millions of dollars were spent developing the project, with nothing to show for the money save for some assorted reactor parts sitting in a Midwestern warehouse, along with a bare spot of land in East Tennessee. This essay examines the political debate surrounding the Clinch River breeder reactor from the Nixon administration’s attempted cancellation in 1973 to the project’s demise in late 1983.1
Examining the breeder debate advances our understanding of nuclear politics in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s. In conventional accounts, the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown of 1979 led to a sharp decline in public support for atomic power in the United States and doomed the industry’s fortunes for years to come.2 Yet recent scholarship on the meltdown has suggested that TMI’s impact on the nuclear debate has been exaggerated. J. Samuel Walker, for example, has pointed out that after TMI, according to a New York Times-CBS poll, 46 percent of Americans still supported building more nuclear power plants in the United States, with only 41 percent disapproving. Harris and Gallup polls showed similar ambivalence, rather than full-throated opposition, about the future of nuclear power in the United States.3 National public opinion was especially unimportant in the case of Clinch River, because the project was planned to be sited near Oak Ridge, whose role in the Manhattan Project was a source of fierce local pride. Locals in Oak Ridge, instead of protesting the project, demanded that it be built in order to bring jobs and keep the town at the forefront of the development of nuclear technology. Three Mile Island, therefore, cannot be used as an explanation of why congressional support for the Clinch River declined in the early 1980s, or why the project was ultimately cancelled.
Instead, I use the case of Clinch River to provide a more nuanced view of the state of the nuclear technology debate in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s. Initial opposition to the breeder project centered on environmentalist concerns specifically about plutonium—not nuclear power in general—along with Nixon, Ford, and Carter administration worries that the technology would not yield the productive results that breeder boosters promised. Carter especially feared that plutonium resources would imperil national security if they fell into the hands of non-nuclear states or non-state actors, and made ending the project a critical goal for his administration. The breeder nonetheless continued to receive funding from the U.S. Congress until the early 1980s. It was then that fiscal conservatives, noticing that the cost estimates for the breeder had been steeply rising but that no tangible progress on the project was being made, allied with the breeder’s longtime opponents, including environmentalists, to kill the [End Page 27] project. This essay therefore argues that a complex set of disagreements about plutonium fuel versus uranium fuel, the changing cost effectiveness of the reactor over time, and the nation’s future energy needs, rather than a general shift in public opinion about nuclear power, led to the ultimate cancellation of the project. By examining the role of Oak Ridge’s atomic legacy in the debate, it also shows how localized conversations about nuclear power in the United States could be, providing a corrective to accounts that privilege national public opinion at the expense of specific local contexts.
The Promise of Breeder Technology
Following the end of World War II, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, site of the Manhattan Project’s uranium enrichment, served as a major federal center of scientific and technological research under the supervision of the Atomic Energy Commission. In the midst of the 1973 energy crisis, the Nixon administration took steps to eliminate experimental energy programs that it concluded were not sufficiently promising, a decision that impacted the research center. Nixon’s assessment, and the implications it would hold for the high-paying jobs at Oak Ridge, drew the attention of Tennessee politicians, most notably Howard H. Baker, Jr., a prominent Republican senator and a member of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy. Baker protested cuts in technological funding but reserved special disdain for the decision to terminate a Molten Salt Breeder Reactor (MSBR) on the Clinch River. The MSBR was one of two backup efforts to another major experimental nuclear project on the Clinch, the Liquid Metal Fast Breeder Reactor (LMFBR). The MSBR was deemed the less promising of the two reserve efforts and found itself under the budgetary axe.4
Proponents of breeder technology had claimed that the concept posed an ideal solution for future energy needs because of its ability to extend dwindling supplies of fissionable uranium nearly indefinitely. They argued that breeder technology possessed the capacity to extract sixty times as much energy from uranium ore than could conventional reactors, and thus, even without any further mining, could supply the United States with electricity for 200 years just from uranium “tailings” already stored as waste. This striking efficiency derived from the breeder’s use of plutonium to continually regenerate fuel. Conventional reactors, breeder boosters noted, subjected to the fission process uranium-235, an isotope that splits when struck by a neutron at low speed, giving off heat. Water under high pressure both slowed down the neutrons and then carried off the heat to a steam turbine in order to generate electricity. But such reactors depended [End Page 28] on the scarce U-235, which made up only 0.7 percent of uranium ore. The rest existed as a heavier isotope, U-238, which does not fission.5
By contrast, the breeder design made productive use of this plentiful U-238. The core of a breeder reactor consisted of plutonium fuel rods surrounded by a “blanket” of U-238 atoms waiting to be “impregnated” by neutrons shot off from the plutonium. Each time an atom of Pu-239 was made to fission, in theory, it would give off heat to turn water into steam for electricity production, but the Pu-239 atom would also emit two or three neutrons. One of these neutrons would hit another Pu-239 atom in the core, sustaining the reaction, but the remaining one or two neutrons would be captured by the “blanket” of U-238 atoms. These excess neutrons would be then transmuted into Pu-239, the very fuel the reactor had started with. The breeding ratio at Clinch River was expected to be 1.24, meaning that the reactor would produce 1.24 atoms of Pu-239 for every one that it consumed. The fuel in the core would eventually be structurally damaged and would require reprocessing for further use, but the new Pu-239 could be used in future reactions. All that was required was fresh U-238, of which there was no shortage.6
In theory, then, by producing more Pu-239 than it had started with and by making use of the abundant U-238, the breeder could serve as a self-sustaining source of energy and fuel the creation of electric power for years and decades into the future, decreasing U.S. dependence on foreign oil. But the final outcome was necessarily uncertain. New scientific technologies often see their costs fluctuate rapidly throughout the development process as unexpected roadblocks arise, and it is nearly impossible to know if a technology that seems to work in theory will actually function properly in physical form. The breeder idea was therefore a gamble from the start, but one that had the potential to pay off handsomely. The Nixon administration, determining that the technology would be neither ready nor needed until many years later, took the steep immediate cost as a signal to abandon the less-promising MSBR and simply write off the money already spent. Baker and Tennessee’s other senator, Bill Brock, subsequently pledged in tandem to “rededicate” their efforts to obtain funding for the MSBR, as well as a radio-isotopes program that also faced elimination. They made the primary reason for their efforts abundantly clear, citing the termination of the approximately 700 employees that would occur should the cuts go through. Nixon’s staff in the Office of Management and Budget replied tersely that they were “not unaware” of the “difficulties imposed on the affected personnel” as a result of the termination of the MSBR, but reiterated the fiscal logic of shutting it down.7 [End Page 29]
Advocates claimed that the breeder’s recycling of plutonium waste made it more environmentally friendly than traditional reactors. The breeder’s use of plutonium in place of the uranium used by traditional reactors, however, drew prominent environmentalist critics, since in small amounts plutonium is many times more deadly than uranium. Consumer advocate and anti-nuclear spokesman Ralph Nader penned a scathing June 1975 editorial in the Chicago Tribune warning against the use of the “fiendishly toxic” element of plutonium in the breeder design. Though Nader opposed nuclear power broadly, he singled out the breeder technology for special criticism. “A millionth of a gram [of plutonium] has caused cancer in laboratory animals; police state measures will be necessary” to control the dangerous substance, he predicted.8 Famed biologist Barry Commoner estimated in 1976’s The Poverty of Power that if the U.S. nuclear power program adopted the breeder design as its base in the future, nationwide nu-clear power generation would involve about 130 million pounds of plutonium. If only one one-millionth of this material were to be released into the environment over the course of normal operations, Commoner said, it would generate 1,600 new cases of cancer per year. The release of four parts in 10,000, according to Commoner, would generate 600,000 new cases of cancer every year.9 Nuclear power advocates replied that these warnings were exaggerated, but because the debate turned on the effect that microscopic particles would have on people reaching decades into the future, few Americans were prepared to adjudicate the competing claims.
Nader’s and Commoner’s exhortations indeed seemed to gain little initial traction, as government funding continued to flow to the project. The breeder indeed appeared to be firmly ensconced as an integral component of U.S. energy policy moving forward. However, the presidential election of 1976 changed the situation. After the short Gerald Ford presidency came to end at the hands of Jimmy Carter, the newly-elected Georgian moved even more forcefully than Nixon to shut down not only the backups to the LMFBR, but the LMFBR itself. The significant amount of plutonium involved unnerved politicians worried about nuclear proliferation, especially the new president, who saw it as a pressing national security issue. The federal Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA), the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), and a group of private utilities, were jointly financing the project and would lose their investments if the project were cancelled. They were all dismayed by the decision and mobilized to stop it.10 [End Page 30]
Carter Pulls His Support
In April 1977, soon after taking office, Carter declared that the United States would halt construction of the reactor as part of an appeal to other countries to renounce plutonium separation themselves. For the same reason, Carter announced that the United States would indefinitely delay construction of the Barnwell reprocessing plant in South Carolina.11 Carter was a Democrat, a party that included many anti-nuclear politicians, most notably Earth Day co-founder Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin. But the new president himself was not quite so predisposed against nuclear power, claiming in 1977 that he considered nuclear power a major frontline energy source rather than a last resort. Nonetheless, he felt that this specific project was not worth funding and could even be perilous for national security. According to Carter, the separated plutonium from the breeder design could be easily diverted to weapons programs. This possibility had been dramatized in 1974 when India used plutonium from its breeder program to create a nuclear explosive. Carter feared that other nations would follow the same path.12
Other criticisms of the breeder centered on the fact that West Germany, Britain, and especially France were further along in developing the breeder technology, and would likely be able to license it to the United States at a lower cost than would be required for the United States to develop the technology itself. Furthermore, by the time the complicated technology was completed, it might not even be needed, since some better alternative would likely be available.13 Carter continually invoked these two critiques, the proliferation threat and murky cost-effectiveness, in his anti-breeder push. Though Carter especially emphasized the nonproliferation argument early in his term and shifted to an emphasis on cost inefficiency later in his presidency, he consistently cited both throughout his years in office.
The project drew skepticism from a number of national periodicals, many of which adopted President Carter’s criticisms. A June 1977 Washington Post editorial, for example, castigated the breeder, calling it a “peculiarly ominous symbol.” The editorial argued that if the project were built, the “main damage” inflicted upon the United States would be not the plutonium waste itself but “the signal that it sends to the rest of the world.” No scientific knowledge would be lost should the breeder be cancelled, the Post opined. The only purpose of the project was to demonstrate on a commercial scale the breeder process already in operation at a smaller test facility in Hanford, Washington, but there were other, safer options for future use. Instead, if the project were built, it would mean Congress was under-cutting [End Page 31] Carter’s wishes, which would “knock the bottom out of the President’s attempts to restrain the proliferation of plutonium throughout the world.” If Congress authorized funds for the reactor, the Post predicted, Europeans might see Carter’s position on non-proliferation as nothing more than a ploy to delay European nuclear development in order to allow the United States to pull into the technological lead.14
Tennessee’s congressional delegation was loath to let a multibillion-dollar project sponsoring scores of local jobs die so quickly. In June, in the Senate’s Subcommittee on Public Works, Senator James Sasser (D-TN) proposed a $150 million appropriation, a compromise between the $237 million that President Ford had requested to continue the project and the $33 million that Carter wanted appropriated in order to wind it down. Although a number of senators indicated their support for the compromise, Chairman John Stennis (D-MS) decided to wait another week to put it to a vote.15 Stennis’s delay gave the breeder’s advocates time to plan their counteroffensive, and they mobilized to scuttle the compromise and ensure the full amount allocated for the breeder. Breeder boosters also added to their lobbying power in Washington, with the AFL-CIO, Westinghouse, and General Electric all expressing support for the program, primarily due to the significant economic impact that further breeder research would create. This lobbying power was more than enough to counteract the influence of the Natural Resources Defense Council and other environmentalist breeder foes.16
Besides lobbying, there was another important reason that members of Congress chose to support the project. If this initial project were to succeed, other states would almost certainly have received large amounts of further research funding to expand the nation’s breeder program. For example, Senator Frank Church (D-ID) was one of the most vocal members of Congress in favor of the breeder, and Carter aides pointed out that Idaho stood to receive $500 million for other two experimental reactors (EBR-1 and EBR-2) if the funding for Clinch River were approved.17 Idaho’s other senator, James A. McClure, a Republican, also supported the project for the same reason.18 Howard Baker and the Tennessee delegation harnessed these different interests and constructed a lasting coalition in the legislature that ensured continued funding.19
In July, the Congress set the project aside momentarily to consider Carter’s critiques. The Washington Post took the opportunity to again argue against continued funding, once more on national security grounds. It asked Congress to take the opportunity to undo the mistakes of the past. [End Page 32] “For years, mindlessly, we promoted abroad the very technology [plutonium] we have now recognized as dangerous. . . . We oversold it.” And now part of America’s obligation, the Post proclaimed, was to undo “some of the distortions of that oversell.” The United States, it said, could hardly hope to convince the Europeans and Japanese to turn away from a plutonium-cycle future if it itself was unwilling to abandon such a path.20 The Post argued that continued funding would unleash grave danger in the international arena. No longer able to trust the United States, the newspaper darkly predicted, America’s allies would develop unstable and perilous technologies, exhortations to do otherwise falling on unhearing ears.
Press criticism proved inconsequential. In September, the House of Representatives voted down an administration proposal to defund the reactor entirely, then proceeded to allocate $80 million to continue the project. House Speaker Tip O’Neill claimed to be disappointed by the vote. The debate had taken a notably bizarre turn when Thomas Downey (D-NY) held up “what appeared to be a soccer ball with holes into which plutonium could be placed,” menacingly demonstrating to his colleagues “[h]ow simple it is to make a nuclear weapon.” Mike McCormick (D-WA) seemed to speak for the majority view, however, in downplaying the risk of nuclear proliferation. “The fact is that there are three dozen nations today that could make nuclear weapons for $50 million, 5 percent of the cost” of the cheapest possible breeder, and ending the breeder would not make a difference in Carter’s nonproliferation efforts.21
The Los Angeles Times disagreed with McCormick’s analysis, calling the vote “shockingly irresponsible” and claiming that Carter’s campaign to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons would be “hopelessly undermined.” The New York Times struck a similar tone, calling the vote “an excellent target for Mr. Carter’s first veto.” Leading scientists also joined the debate. Edward Teller, one of the world’s foremost nuclear power advocates, was less concerned about proliferation but more worried about the technology’s future effectiveness. A significant voice due to his longstanding support for nuclear power even in this face of intense opposition, Teller joined in the tide of criticism and dubbed the Clinch River project obsolete before it had even been started, arguing that more promising alternatives were readily apparent. Though breeders promised to produce fuel indefinitely, developing the technology was, as rising cost estimates indicated, incredibly expensive. By the time the technology was needed decades in the future, Teller claimed, a better and safer alternative would almost certainly be available.22 [End Page 33]
At the end of October, following the House’s vote, the Senate’s Appropriations Committee voted to require Carter to spend $80 million to keep the breeder project alive for at least another year. Both chambers later added the funds to a larger $6.8 billion appropriations bill, meaning that dozens of other federal programs would die alongside the breeder should Carter again exercise his veto power.23 After this vote, the New York Times disappointedly dubbed the breeder “the reactor that would not die.” Carter was in a bind. The Washington Post’s early prophecy looked likely to come to fruition. The president’s initial promise not to build the reactor had been greeted with cynicism in Europe, because the perception there was that Washington was trying to get other industrial powers to renounce a technology in which they led, giving the United States time to catch up.24 Were Carter to backtrack now, it would have granted credence to these ominous theories about U.S. intentions.
Carter’s only options besides simply signing or vetoing the bill were to ask Congress to defer the use of the money, or to propose that Congress rescind the appropriation for the breeder only. Given the breeder’s popularity in Congress, both options seemed unlikely. The New York Times declared that Carter must either “deliver an early finishing blow” to the breeder or “find a graceful way to yield” to the demands of Congress. Continuing the constant demands to defund the project only to be publicly rebuffed could only harm the president’s political standing.25
The president felt compelled to sign this bill for the sake of the other appropriations and did so. But after negotiating with key House members, the administration came up with a new compromise that it hoped would end the impasse. The funds allocated for the plutonium breeder in the coming fiscal year would instead be used to build a smaller demonstration breeder reactor to be powered by uranium instead of plutonium. In addition, Congress would allocate an additional $160 million to a two-year design study for a larger, different breeder based on some other fuel than plutonium. To alleviate fears of local job losses in East Tennessee, Energy Secretary James Schlesinger promised that this proposed study plan would employ 90 percent of the professionals currently on the Clinch River design team.26
The Los Angeles Times voiced support for the compromise, claiming that should the design study prove successful, “the technology could be made available to other countries that are genuinely convinced that breeder reactors are essential to meeting their future energy needs” without [End Page 34] increasing the risk of plutonium dangers. Likewise, Walter Flowers (DAL) “hailed” the compromise as an opportunity to break the impasse. However, Marilyn Lloyd (D-TN), in whose district the Clinch River facility would be built, was skeptical, deeply distrusting the administration’s motives.27 Less than a month later, Representative Lloyd offered an amendment to the 1979 fiscal year authorization for the Department of Energy to reject the administration’s compromise and authorize $172.5 million to fund the breeder for another year.28 With anti-nuclear forces divided and pro-breeder advocates united, the amendment passed. Mike McCormick claimed boldly that the vote indicated “It’s time now for the administration to recognize the Congress is not going to roll over and play dead on the breeder.”29
John Wydler (R-NY), the ranking minority member on the House’s Committee on Science and Technology, wrote Carter that same April to warn about the nuclear progress that America’s Cold War adversary was achieving. Wydler had conversed with high-ranking Soviet officials in Moscow during the last week of March. The information conveyed was alarming. During the visit, the Soviets had victoriously touted the 350-megawatt breeder plant that had been operating on the Caspian Sea for three years, as well as their plans to complete and begin operation of a massive 600-megawatt plant in 1980. “I think you will agree,” Wydler warned President Carter, that the United States’s own program paled in comparison to the aggressive approach pursued by the Soviets. “It is frightening to speculate on the degree of control of the world market” for distribution of breeder technology that the United States’s Cold War adversaries might achieve by successfully implementing their program.30
By contrast, Representative Wydler warned, the United States was foolishly “limping indecisively” on the nuclear option. Imperative action was necessary to counter this ominous trajectory. He advised the president to immediately “commit strongly” to breeder technology to head off Soviet hegemony in the nuclear sphere.31 That Wydler may have been subject to a carefully choreographed and possibly exaggerated presentation to hype the Soviet nuclear program and intimidate the Soviets’ Cold War enemy seemed not to have occurred to the representative. In fact, a long 1983 exposé in the Atlantic Monthly on the problems within the U.S. breeder program also revealed that the Soviets had experienced “greater than expected” [End Page 35] problems with their own efforts and had scaled back their previously-bold plans.32
Wydler’s demands that the breeder be continued rested on an ideological belief that the United States must not fall behind the Soviet Union in the development of any nuclear technology. It may be surprising at first that weapons concerns did not also figure more prominently in U.S. fears, given the decades-long nuclear standoff between the two nations. Yet by the late 1970s, the United States and the Soviet Union each possessed a stockpile of weapons that could wipe the other off the face of the planet. In this context, the main concern for each nation was that the other might launch a rapid and comprehensive attack to wipe out main cities and missile storage areas before there was a chance to react or respond.33 Since the Soviet Union already had thousands of nuclear weapons, any fear that it might use the breeder to create more nuclear material for military use was unfounded. For Carter and many other critics of the breeder, the technology’s primary danger was always that plutonium shipments could be compromised in transport and then passed on to malicious actors.
In June 1978, the Senate Energy Committee resurrected the compromise plan rejected in the House, voting to allow Carter to scrap the breeder if he planned for an alternative project. Administration officials, exasperated with the ongoing controversy, frustrated with the House’s perceived intransigence, and continuing to demand the project’s unconditional cancellation, indicated that the proposal did not go far enough and could invite another presidential veto. However, Carter himself indicated his approval for the compromise the next month. To assuage congressional fears that the administration would stall the design study of the alternative demonstration breeder reactor until it simply died, the vote required that the study be completed by 31 March 1981. Opponents of the breeder seemed hopeful that this would finally conclude the controversy. A few days later, though, during consideration of a $4.3 billion fiscal authorization for the Department of Energy, the House rejected the compromise, again reiterating its demand for full funding of the original project. The president was shocked and disappointed, the political controversy seemingly no closer to resolution now than months or years before.34
Newspapers continued their assault on the reactor after the failed compromise, pointing to the lack of material results even after so much funding [End Page 36] from Congress. A December 1978 story in the Washington Post reported that the site chosen for the reactor had yet to be even cleared of trees. “Meanwhile,” though, “fabrication of the huge pieces of machinery that were designed and ordered for Clinch River chugs along.” At an Indiana plant that was manufacturing the reactor’s components, construction of the 470-ton reactor vessel was reportedly 90 percent complete, which put it ahead of schedule. The stainless steel vessel designed to house the reactor core had already reached its full girth of 20 feet and its full height of 54 feet. “But when it is finished, in a few months, it will be placed in storage like an antique vessel that nobody wants.”35
The following spring brought a renewed administration push. In the face of the compromise plan’s failure, Carter and his staff returned to a hard-nosed approach favoring total cancellation. In April 1979, Secretary Schlesinger sent legislative language to Senator Henry Jackson (D-WA) that would remove basic authorization for the project and provide for “intelligent use” of those components that could be put to use in other nuclear designs. Attempts to combat the breeder in the Senate had little effect on continued support for the breeder in the more rambunctious House. Despite the administration push, two days after these actions the House’s Science and Technology Committee voted to proceed with initial construction.36
Carter’s public statement the next day overflowed with irritation. Returning to his nonproliferation critiques, he called the vote a “significant setback to a rational and responsible nuclear energy policy,” since the vote would antagonize European nations that had already distrusted Carter’s calls to abandon breeder technology. Carter publicly urged Congress to press ahead with uranium-fueled light water technology, an alternative to plutonium, and to ignore the “special interests” driving continued funding.37 Carter’s words must have come merely from frustration, as there was little reason to think that Congress would deviate from its support. The “special interests,” which in fact encompassed a wide array of supporters, were firmly in control.
Through the rest of 1979 and the first few months of 1980, the politics surrounding the breeder proceeded according to a general pattern. Carter would try to forge some sort of compromise option to delay or kill the construction of the plutonium breeder, with the House insisting on reliable continued funding by including money for it within larger appropriations that Carter could not veto. For example, Carter recommended no money [End Page 37] for the project in the Energy Department’s budget for fiscal year 1981, but the House Committee on Science and Technology voted to include $155 million in the Department’s budget instead. A veto would obviously have meant cutting off all funding to the entire Energy Department.38 It would clearly take some kind of structural change to the situation to alter the underlying dynamics that had guided events on a steady path of conflict between the anti-breeder executive and the pro-breeder legislature for the past several years.
Reagan’s Support and Changing Sentiments in Congress
The election of 1980 was just such a change, but not in a way that might have been expected given the new president’s campaign rhetoric. The newly elected Ronald Reagan had come into office promising a rollback of government spending, and a long-delayed, over-budget, and ostensibly outmoded federal project appeared to be a prime target for cost-cutting measures. However, in February 1981, Reagan instead decided to put his backing behind the initiative and to propose completing the reactor. The new chief executive appeared to support the project as a favor to Senator Baker, who had become Senate Majority Leader with the Republican take-over of that body after the 1980 election. Reagan, of course, required Baker’s help in moving his anti-tax and anti-regulatory agenda through the legislative process, and support for the reactor was a necessary price to pay to ensure Senate attention to his larger priorities. In July, Reagan also announced that the United States would stop trying to impede breeder development in Europe.39
And yet, as the executive branch finally gave its blessing to the project, the tide of opinion in Congress began to slowly turn against the breeder. There were several important reasons for this change. Some of them had to do with the supposed advantages that plutonium had over uranium. In the early 1970s, rapidly rising cost estimates and licensing complications had made “serious inroads” into orders for new nuclear plants, and these factors only worsened in the latter half of the decade. Also in the late 1970s, new discoveries of natural reserves of uranium had raised estimates of future uranium availability, making the price of uranium plummet. While a potent argument in the mid-1970s, casting the breeder as a solution to the problem of scarce uranium supplies now made little sense.40 Furthermore, the breeder was cooled with molten sodium, as opposed to a standard water-cooled uranium reactor. Because sodium is highly combustible [End Page 38] when it comes into contact with water or air, the breeder was a much more dangerous product than a water-cooled reactor. Plutonium’s comparative advantages in terms of fuel generation had made the tradeoff seem worth it in the early 1970s, but now with uranium cheaper and in much higher supply, the benefits no longer seemed to outweigh the risks.
Others reasons for opposition were related to the national and international context. The 1973 oil embargo, which caused many Americans—especially Jimmy Carter—to rethink the viability of continued growth in energy consumption, spurred a national interest in energy conservation, drastically reducing estimates for future energy demand in general. Furthermore, the French, who had previously stood boldly at the forefront of breeder development, were experiencing economic problems with their own program, causing U.S. proponents to rethink the practical usefulness of the technology.41 Finally, private utilities’ share of the project’s expenses had dropped to 9 percent, sticking taxpayers even more squarely with the cost of a project that was becoming ever more outmoded. The initial funding plan for the breeder had capped private utility contributions at a flat $250 million, and as the project’s costs continued to balloon, the proportion of the total cost billed to taxpayers climbed higher.42
The New York Times continued its assault on the program with renewed vigor, warning the Reagan administration not to “plunge ahead” with the project. The Times spoke apprehensively of a coming vote in the House Science and Technology Committee for $254 million to start construction. “A favorable vote will probably assure that the Tennessee demonstration plant progresses to completion,” the periodical predicted, but a contrary vote “may finally turn Congress against this costly, ill-conceived technological turkey.” But opponents of the breeder also faced two consequences of the 1980 election. Baker became the Senate’s powerful Majority Leader, and Marilyn Lloyd assumed the chairmanship of the House’s Subcommittee on Energy Research and Production, which had significant sway in allocating federal dollars to energy projects.43
The fears of anti-breeder activists notwithstanding, there were indeed signs that some members of Congress were beginning to turn against the project. On 7 May, the House’s Science and Technology Committee narrowly voted to de-authorize the reactor and spend a mere $20 million to terminate the program. The significance of this vote is difficult to pinpoint. Although the New York Times characterized the vote as a “major blow” against the project—and some opponents overreached by calling the result “a major shift of sentiment away from nuclear power” altogether—in July Congress voted to spend $250 million to fund another year. Though one [End Page 39] committee had clearly turned against the breeder, the full Congress had not done the same. In the meantime, the projected cost of the reactor had ballooned to $3.2 billion from an initial estimate of $669 million in 1973.44 To breeder opponents, the project had always been a waste of money, and mounting evidence seemed to validate their predictions. Every time the breeder project seemed primed to make a productive contribution to U.S. energy policy, some new complication would push the day of ultimate benefit just a bit further into the future. The difference was that opposition statements were now finding a foothold in Congress.
However, in a 24 July vote the full House again voted to fund the project, approving a $13 billion appropriations bill for energy and natural resources that included money for the reactor. With a somewhat overblown rhetorical flourish, House Majority Leader Jim Wright (D-TX), attempted to warn his colleagues of the dangers of ending the breeder project by raising the specter of the ancient Hebrews: “They wearied of the costs of wandering in the desert. Some wanted to turn back,” but they pressed on, Wright said, “and now some want to turn back” on the reactor.45 The implication of this comparison—that finishing the breeder would lead the United States to some glorious “promised land”—must have been particularly galling to environmentalist critics who emphasized plutonium’s potential for dystopian terror.
The Senate also voted for continued funding. Commenting on the outcome, the Washington Post noted the extent and rapidity to which the Senate’s newfound “budget-cutting zeal” had been tempered by “old-fashioned pork-barrel politics and senatorial courtesies.” The Journal attributed the result to the persistent work of Howard Baker, Jr. Jill Greenbaum, a lobbyist for the anti-breeder National Taxpayers Union, concurred, claiming that “we would win easily if it weren’t for Senator Baker.”46
Congressional Opposition Coalesces
Yet by the next spring, with still no work done to prepare the reactor’s intended site, a more concentrated opposition emerged in Congress. In June 1982, a coalition of thirty-six Republican and fifty-five Democratic representatives mounted a campaign to kill the breeder, sending a letter to Reagan asking his administration to withdraw a $252 million request for fiscal year 1983, part of which was intended to fund groundbreaking on the Clinch River site. There was much urgency, since one of the major roadblocks facing the project’s construction had fallen. The NRC had twice rejected administration requests to expedite groundbreaking, but in August, on the third try, the NRC voted to allow construction to begin. The deciding [End Page 40] vote in this shift was Reagan appointee James Asselstine, a longtime NRC staff attorney. At the May vote, Asselstine, who had just been appointed to the commission, had voted no on the administration’s request. He claimed that the speed of his appointment and Senate confirmation might raise ethical questions if he voted before having sufficient time to study the project. In August, though, Asselstine shifted his position, tipping the balance of the five-member commission in favor of the administration. According to an assistant secretary in the Energy Department, site clearing, grading, and excavation would start as soon as possible. Obtaining a permit and a license to operate the plant was still expected to take several more years, ensuring continued uncertainty about the project’s timeline.47
On 22 September, bulldozers finally began clearing the reactor’s intended site. An environmental group had obtained an order halting construction to that point in time, but after an Atlanta appeals court judge overruled the order, the bulldozers went to work immediately. Percy Brewington, Jr., the acting director of the project, divided a red oak—the first tree to fall at the construction site—into segments, and distributed them to long-time proponents of the reactor. The same New York Times article that reported this news also noted that a sports shop in town was selling t-shirts that read, “I’ve been to Oak Ridge; I glow in the dark,” demonstrating the pride that Oak Ridgers had for their place in atomic history.48
In response, an “odd coalition” of the Heritage Foundation, the National Taxpayers Union, and environmental groups together joined forces to cut off funding in the Senate. Conservatives were reportedly looking for a way to punish Senator Baker, who had pushed a 1982 tax increase through the Senate. The 1982 midterm congressional election, which saw twenty-seven incumbent Republicans lose their seats to Democrats, seemed to present another opportunity to anti-breeder advocates. Many incumbent Republicans had depended on Reagan’s support in their re-election battles. Now freed from the requirement of maintaining favor with their party’s leader, lame-duck Republicans inclined toward budget cutting found their hands untied. According to one House staffer, “The leadership can put us off once, but on something this controversial, they have to allow a vote eventually.”49 With significant coalitions in both houses opposed to the project, the breeder’s future was uncertain.
Although the cost of the project had been estimated at $2 billion in 1977—and $2.6 billion as recently as mid-1979—the current figure used in congressional debates was $3.6 billion. Much more alarmingly, a new government [End Page 41] estimate put the total cost of completion, which included expenses for NRC licensing, at up to $9 billion. The Tribune warned Senator Baker, known to harbor presidential ambitions for 1988, claiming that “he’d do well to kill this thing and show that he’s responsible enough to put the nation’s interests ahead of his state’s.” With more than a hint of sarcasm, the paper predicted that “He won’t get far running for president of Tennessee.” Indeed, the lame-duck session of Congress saw the House finally vote down the reactor, and the Senate decide to continue funding by a single vote. The New York Times happily described the project as “dangling by a thread,” and advised that “the next Congress will do well to sever it without regret.”50 While these periodicals had long assailed the breeder, their criticisms were now gaining traction in Congress.
With momentum on their side, congressional critics redoubled their efforts to kill the project, knowing that “once concrete is poured and more than 4,000 workers are hired for construction,” the project might be impossible to stop. Senator Baker’s announcement in 1983 that he planned to retire from the Senate was just the catalyst that critics needed. In a major turnaround the following June, the Senate for the first time in a decade approved annual appropriations for the Energy Department which included no money for Clinch River. In an even more telling sign of how congressional opinion had shifted, Senator Baker made no attempt to restore any part of the $270 million cut by the administration. The reactor’s future was in serious doubt unless utilities agreed to a share a major portion of the cost. Given that the plutonium breeder required uranium prices of $200 per pound to remain economical and that uranium prices currently stood at only $20 per pound, an infusion of private-sector cash seemed unlikely.51
Representative Marilyn Lloyd posed in September for a bizarre media opportunity that was very much out of step with the new realities of the breeder’s status. A cheery Oak Ridge news release reported on the wondrous scale of work recently completed to prepare the reactor’s site on the Clinch. More than 350,000 pounds of explosives had recently been used to blast 675,000 cubic yards of limestone and siltstone from the area to create space for the reactor, the news release proudly proclaimed. More than 2,400 steel rock bolts and bearing plates had been installed to prevent rock from newly formed vertical rock walls in the area from moving. Representative Lloyd was given the honor of tightening the last rock bolt and completing the preparations necessary for construction to begin.52 But since the breeder’s future now appeared quite bleak, the jovial tone characterizing news releases about the completion of the reactor’s intended site seemed like willful ignorance of the situation. Another news release announced [End Page 42] that a scale model of the breeder would be on display at the Oak Ridge Public Library. This item highlighted Oak Ridge’s deeply-rooted nuclear identity, but it seemed even stranger as it was now doubtful that the structure would ever exist in full-scale form.53
The State of Nuclear Debate
With the turn of congressional opinion against the project, Clinch River’s advocates turned to increasingly desperate measures. The project’s managers were reportedly planning to attach further funding for the reactor to urgent legislation, perhaps the continuing resolution to keep the government funded after the fiscal year concluded at the end of September. This plan failed in the face of general congressional opposition. To assuage concerns about federal spending, reactor backers had also come up with a new financial plan that supposedly included greater contributions from industry. This latest plan would raise $1 billion, or 40 percent of the now $2.5 billion total cost, from private industry, with the money being repaid to industry from the project’s eventual revenues. Closer inspection revealed that the “support” consisted mainly of loans covered by broad federal guarantees, meaning that the government, not private investors, would be responsible for losses if the plant failed to reap projected revenues. The director of the Congressional Budget Office testified to Congress that this private support program would cost the government more than conventional appropriations. The plan gained little support.54
The last lifeline to the project had failed. At the end of October, the Senate definitively voted by a tally of 56 to 40 to cut off funding to the project. Breeder backers reluctantly recognized the finality of the vote. “The Senate has spoken,” Senator Baker conceded tersely, and “I will not prolong it at this point.” With both houses of Congress on record against the project and refusing to give it any more money, Clinch River’s future came to a quiet end.55
The only remaining question had to do with the costs of shutting down the project. After the Department of Energy put out the word that the project would be closed “in an orderly manner,” just how much more money would be required was uncertain. The director of DOE’s nuclear planning division said that the department had once figured shutdown costs at between $200 and $500 million. But after the Atlanta appeals court’s decision had allowed construction to begin, the local site manager had rushed outside [End Page 43] around midnight and knocked down trees with a bulldozer. A large cavity had subsequently been blasted out of rock, as Representative Lloyd’s symbolic tightening of the last rock bolt had highlighted, and a foundation had subsequently been laid. Now that the breeder was dead, some environmental repair and stabilization would have to be done to the site before it could be abandoned. The DOE director predicted that Congress would have to vote another small supplemental appropriation for 1984, since Clinch River’s current budget would expire in a few weeks.56 This shutdown cost was a small inconvenience in light of the hundreds of millions that had already been spent.
The Clinch River reactor itself was a multibillion-dollar public initiative. It had originated as a promising new technology that had the potential to decrease U.S. dependence on foreign oil and provide a virtually limitless supply of energy. But more importantly, it was also a test case for future endeavors. If the Clinch River reactor had been constructed and deemed a success, it would have served as the model for future similar reactors, each also receiving some measure of government support. But this scenario did not occur. Due to rising cost estimates and a variety of macroeconomic and macro-political factors, the Clinch River project was ended, and the United States abandoned its breeder program altogether.
The Clinch River case is a reminder of the complexities of nuclear politics in the United States in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In many mainstream narratives, the Three Mile Island disaster assumes a central role in this history. Yet in the many newspaper and magazine articles documenting the debate over Clinch River, references to Three Mile Island fail to appear, even in articles immediately after the meltdown. Instead, the debate involved an array of environmentalists, technological optimists, local boosters, and fiscal conservatives, all lobbying for influence in the discussion. Locals in Oak Ridge, far from protesting the plant, strongly supported it and demanded that their government representatives bring it to fruition. The program finally ended not due to a general American backlash against nuclear power, but because environmentalists concerned about the particular dangers of plutonium joined with fiscal conservatives alarmed that the cost estimates continued to rise with little progress being made toward completion. Had the 1973 oil embargo not spurred a national move toward energy conservation, or had new uranium discoveries not been made during the decade, the project may have, in fact, been completed as planned, despite the Three Mile Island meltdown. The example of Clinch River therefore reminds us that the history of nuclear technology in this period was more complicated and contingent than has been etched into popular memory. [End Page 44]
Michael Camp is a lecturer in the Department of History at Clemson University specializing in the environmental and political history of the twentieth century United States.
He would like to thank Suzanne Moon, Barbara Hahn, and the three anonymous referees for their comments on the manuscript.
4. Frederick V. Maick to Howard H. Baker, Jr., 28 February 1973, box 10, folder 4, Bill Brock Papers (hereafter BB), Howard H. Baker, Jr. Center for Public Policy, University of Tennessee; Press Release, 14 March 1973, box 10, folder 4, in BB.
5. “Controversial Clinch River Reactor Plan Is Poised to Proceed.”
7. Maick to Baker, 28 February 1973, box 10, folder 4; Press Release, 14 March 1973, box 10, folder 4, both in BB. See also “Tennesseans Fear Loss of Jobs if Carter Cancels Breeder Project.”
8. “Nader on ‘Breeders.’”
13. “Clinch River Project Symbol of Split In Nation on Nuclear Power.”
14. “The Clinch River Votes.”
15. “Support Growing for Clinch River Breeder Reactor.”
16. “Church: Liberal Champion Of Clinch River Facility.”
17. Ibid; “Sen. Church Embraces Atom.”
18. “Carter Switches on A-Breeder Research.”
20. “Time Out at Clinch River.”
21. “House, in Rebuff to Carter, Votes Funds for Clinch River Reactor.”
22. “Clinch River and the World”; “The Right Reaction to Clinch River: Veto.”
23. “Senate Panel Votes Clinch River Funds.”
24. “Clinch River Project Symbol of Split in Nation on Nuclear Power.”
26. “Compromise at Clinch River”; “Proposal to Replace Clinch River Reactor With Safer Plant Faces Battle in Congress.”
27. “Proposal to Replace Clinch River Reactor With Safer Plant Faces Battle in Congress.”
28. Marilyn Lloyd to Colleague, box 146, folder Clinch River Breeder Reactor (5), 1977–1978, in Marilyn Lloyd Papers (hereafter ML), Special Collections, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
29. “House, in Rebuff to Carter, Votes Funds for Clinch River Reactor.”
30. John W. Wydler to The President, 4 April 1978, box 145, folder Clinch River Breeder Reactor (3), 1978, in ML.
34. “Senate Panel Votes Clinch River Reactor Compromise”; “Plan That Halts Reactor at Clinch River, Sets Study for New One Backed by Carter”; “House Won’t Cut Funds for Clinch River Reactor.”
35. “The Embattled Clinch River Project Is Breeding Nothing but Expenses So Far.”
36. Jimmy Carter to Walter Mondale, 24 April 1979, box 96, folder Clinch River Breeder Reactor, 5/5/79-6/6/79, Office of Congressional Liaison Files (hereafter OCL), Jimmy Carter Presidential Library; James R. Schlesinger to Henry M. Jackson, 24 April 1979, box 249, folder Clinch River Breeder Reactor, 4/24/79-1/29/80, in OCL.
37. Press Release, 27 April 1979, box 96, folder Clinch River Breeder Reactor, 5/5/79-6/6/79, in OCL.
38. “Clinch River Project Advances in House.”
39. “Reagan Said to Support Tennessee Nuclear Plant”; “Controversial Clinch River Reactor Plan Is Poised to Proceed”; “Controversial Clinch River Reactor Survives Budget Ax.”
41. “A Nuclear D-Day in Congress.”
42. “Three That Deserve to Lose.”
43. “Reagan Said to Support Tennessee Nuclear Plant”; “Controversial Clinch River Reactor Plan is Poised to Proceed”; “A Nuclear D-Day in Congress.”
44. “House Panel Opposes Reactor.”
45. “House Approves Funds for Two Controversial Nuclear Projects.”
46. Ibid; “Clinch River Plant Is Hit by Shake Up of Top Management.”
47. “Congress Coalition Opens Fight to Kill Clinch River Project”; “NRC Again Rejects a Proposed Speedup Of Work on Clinch River Breeder Reactor”; “Class Act at the NRC”; “NRC Resurrects Clinch River Nuclear Project”; “Clinch River Breeder Reactor Clears Hurdle”; “NRC to Let Work Start on Breeder Reactor.”
48. “Clinch River Project Is Right at Home in Oak Ridge.”
50. “Dump the Clinch Breeder”; “Clinch River by a Thread.”
51. “Clinch River by a Thread”; “Clinch River Funds Denied”; “Clinch River Ailing.”
52. News Release, “Ready for Construction,” 14 September 1983, box 146, folder Clinch River Breeder Reactor (7), 1983, in ML.
53. News Release, “Exhibit at Oak Ridge Library to Feature Breeder Reactor Model,” 25 August 1983, box 146, folder Clinch River Breeder Reactor (7), 1983, in ML.
54. “End Run to Clinch River”; News Release, “Subcommittee Witnesses Urge Congress to Approve Clinch River Alternative Financing Plan,” 15 September 1983, box 146, folder Clinch River Breeder Reactor (7), 1983; Ronald Reagan to Tom Bevill, 4 October 1983, box 146, folder Clinch River Breeder Reactor (7), 1983, both in ML.
55. “Senate Vote Virtually Kills Clinch River Atom Reactor.”