Dream Machine

Why the costly, dangerous, and maybe unworkable breeder reactor lives on


THE NOTION THAT YOU CAN CHEAT NATURE AND gain something for nothing is as old as human ingenuity itself. Medieval alchemists sought a “philosopher’s stone” that would transmute base metals into gold, and tinkering inventors have tried for centuries to make a perpetual-motion machine. All came to naught.

In a sense, the arrival of the nuclear age has not discouraged these ancient pursuits but intensified them. Since the 1940s, a new generation of dreamers and tinkerers— physicists, engineers, publicists, and politicians—has taken up the search, and at its urging, the federal government has committed more than $10 billion, thousands of careers, and nearly four decades to building nuclear-power plants that are supposed to make more fuel than they consume while generating electricity. This new “alchemist’s dream, as its boosters have called it, is the breeder reactor. It represents the costliest energy-research project in U.S. history—one that survives despite accidents, delays, mismanagement, bitter scientific and political argument, and ever-rising costs. Last fall, Congress came close to withdrawing all funds for a breeder scheduled to be built beside the Clinch River, in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and it may succeed in doing so this year. The Clinch River reactor, which would be the largest and most expensive American breeder ever built, has been the subject of controversy for more than ten years. How the project came to be and how it has survived serves as a revealing example of the way politics and nuclear energy have been intertwined.

A breeder reactor looks like other nuclear-power plants running today, and, like them, it can generate electricity, by splitting atoms to release heat to boil water to drive a steam generator. But the breeder entails an important difference: its special purpose is to convert otherwise useless metals into new atomic fuel. A nuclear plant that produces at least as much fuel as it consumes can legitimately be called a “breeder.” Conventional reactors are not breeders, even though they produce some new fuel, because they produce much less than they consume.

If the breeder can be made to work as its promoters hope, it promises the United States an era of “endless energy.” And, they say, the energy autarky this would bring could assure the nation’s prosperity and political stability “essentially forever,” or, if not quite forever, then at least “until the next Ice Age.” There’s a catch, however. The fuel that both breeders and conventional reactors make while generating electricity is plutonium—a toxic, manmade metal. Plutonium stays dangerously radioactive for millennia, and is the explosive element in most atomic bombs. Whereas a 1,000-megawatt conventional power reactor typically produces enough plutonium in a year to make about twenty bombs, a breeder reactor of the same size would produce enough to make as many as 100. (One megawatt is one million watts.) Thus, critics fear the huge stockpiles of plutonium that a fleet of breeders would produce. With tons of commercial plutonium in circulation, nations or terrorists would have relatively little trouble obtaining the few pounds needed to make a bomb.

THESE TWO EXTREME PREDICTIONS UNDERLIE DEbates about the economic costs and benefits of breeders, although the mundane details are often the ones that arouse the passions of debaters. Deeper still are competing social and economic beliefs, such as growth versus no growth, or the inclination to produce rather than conserve energy. Seen broadly, the controversy over the breeder turns on the faith of the promoters that technology will be able to solve the social, political, and environmental problems it creates, and on the fear of the skeptics that the breeder’s problems outweigh its promise. The fight expected in Congress this spring over whether or not to build the Clinch River breeder will be essentially a fight over these competing visions of reality.

The pursuit of the Clinch River breeder has acquired “a macho aspect,” according to Victor Gilinsky, a member of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). He says that engineers and utility executives see their quarrel with the breeder’s critics as a “test” of their ability “to deal with a hysterical minority.” He says that, in like fashion, government officials consider the struggle with anti-nuclear groups to be “an indicator of their ability to run the country.” Carl Walske, the president of the Atomic Industrial Forum, Inc., the nuclear industry’s trade association, views the breeder in still more personal terms than these. He says, “Telling a utility executive that he can’t have a breeder is like telling a man he can’t have grandchildren.”

Last August, the NRC granted a preliminary permit for the Clinch River site to be leveled. The builders began the job soon after—although as yet they have no guarantees that the NRC will rule the plant safe for the site or grant a construction permit—in hopes that Congress would then be reluctant to withdraw the project’s funds. They sent crews in to clear 250 acres of trees, to move 1.6 million cubic yards of soil, and to excavate nearly a million cubic yards of rock. As of this writing, the NRC must still formally approve the site’s preparation, so even this work is being done on a gamble.

If a breeder is ever built at Clinch River, it will be the fourth that American taxpayers have financed. The first, whose construction began in 1949, in Idaho, produced the first electricity generated by the atom. The second, begun near Detroit in 1956, as the “first commercial breeder,” produced electricity so expensive that its owners have not bothered to calculate the cost. Both of these facilities suffered one of the worst malfunctions that can befall a nuclear plant: a partial meltdown of the radioactive, heat-producing core. The third breeder, begun in Idaho in 1957, has avoided meltdowns and produced electricity for nineteen years, but it was designed only to test different breeder fuels, not to breed new fuel itself. Its relatively simple design, which has been adopted for larger reactors in France and the Soviet Union (countries whose breeder programs are years ahead of ours), so far has been rejected by planners for future plants here.

The Clinch River breeder is not the last to be proposed. This past October, the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), a research-and-development center run by a group of utilities, opened an office near Chicago to begin planning for a fifth breeder—two or three times bigger than the one proposed for the Clinch River site—to be built, they hope, with foreign money. Floyd Culler, the president of EPRI, says, “If the Clinch River breeder reactor is built and successful, the follow-on program is necessary as the next step toward a commercial product available some time after the year 2000. If [the Clinch River reactor] fails, it’s equally necessary to sustain breeder development in the United States, because [the development has] no focal point without it,”

What Culler’s faith reveals, and what the breeder’s supporters have shown, is that they need this dream machine, even if it does not work well, as a symbol of the atom’s stubborn, ultimate reward. According to Gilinsky, “It promises endless energy, and once you’re on to that, you see your way through to infinity.”

The breeder has evolved from an intellectual marvel to a military adjunct to a commercial possibility to a political symbol. Reviewing the breeder’s history, one can see more clearly how the atom has enraptured—or entrapped—scientists, politicians, and the rest of us.

The plutonium made by breeders is the first element created by man. It is useful to understand what plutonium is and how it is made, since the breeder is designed to make it by the ton. The element is derived from uranium (U), which is mined from rock and which, in its raw state, consists of about 99 percent U-238 (238 represents the number of neutrons and protons in a single atom) and less than one percent U-235. (Atoms are composed of positively charged protons and neutral neutrons, which together form an atom’s nucleus, and negatively charged electrons, which spin around this nucleus.)

In a breeder reactor, a core of U-235 is surrounded by a blanket of U-238. Making plutonium is a three-step process, the first step of which is “fission.” U-235 atoms are unstable, and when enough of them are concentrated in one place (“critical mass”), the neutrons of some of those atoms, which are routinely and randomly given off, will hit other atoms and split them in two, releasing some neutrons at the same time. If each neutron released strikes another atom, which then releases more neutrons, a “chain reaction” is created. When a U-235 atom fissions in the breeder reactor’s core, one or more neutrons escape into the blanket, where they bombard atoms of U-238. Only a few elements will fission when a neutron strikes them, and U-235 is one; most, including U-238, absorb the escaped neutron instead, adding it to their own mass and weight. This “neutron absorption” is the second step in making plutonium. When a U-238 atom absorbs a neutron, it becomes U-239. So far, the process has taken a few millionths of a second. The third step, “radioactive decay,” takes about three days, as the U-239 breaks down into neptunium-239 and, finally, plutonium-239. Once plutonium is made, it can replace U-235 as the breeder’s core to fuel chain reactions. In fact, most breeders are designed to run on plutonium, not uranium.

Plutonium (Pu) wasn’t known for certain to exist until February 23, 1941, when it was separated at the University of California at Berkeley by the chemist Glenn Seaborg, working with his colleagues Joseph Kennedy and Arthur Wahl. The discovery came in the midst of research elsewhere to design a nuclear weapon, and it had been predicted earlier.

First had come the work of Leo Szilard, a Hungarianborn physicist who had studied in Berlin under the physicist Albert Einstein and fled Germany in 1933. That year, he conceived the two essential requirements for the release of nuclear energy—critical mass and chain reaction— and he soon recognized his idea’s potential for weaponry. In 1938, Szilard joined a research team at Columbia University that was headed by another immigrant, the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi. There, working with the Canadian physicist Walter Zinn, Szilard refined his theory and confirmed the uranium atom’s explosive promise. (In 1939, Szilard and two other Hungarian immigrants, the physicists Eugene Wigner and Edward Teller, persuaded Einstein to sign a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, urging him to develop nuclear weapons before the Germans did. The letter set in motion the Army’s Manhattan Engineer District, commonly referred to as “the Manhattan Project”—the top-secret effort to make an atomic bomb.)

In 1940, the Columbia team discovered that when a U235 atom fissions in natural uranium, at least one of its neutrons is absorbed by the non-fissionable U-238. Fermi and Szilard considered the absorption of little importance, but a physicist at Princeton University, Louis Turner, suggested that the U-238 might be transformed by the absorption into a new element, which might itself fission. Since U-238 is 140 times more plentiful in nature than U235, Turner proposed that the transformation might be a means to create a more abundant supply of an explosive element for bombs. Turner’s suggestion led Seaborg and his colleagues to try to separate such an element.

The Berkeley team bombarded natural uranium with neutrons in the university’s cyclotron, or “atom smasher,” and their chemical analyses of the result proved Turner’s prediction that a new element would be created. A month later, together with the physicist Emilio Segre, they confirmed Turner’s more important corollary: that the new element would fission as easily as U-235 does. This knowledge gave the United States a potential alternative to scarce U-235 for use in atomic bombs.

According to the late Robert E. Wilson, who helped to oversee the development of nuclear energy in the government in the early 1960s, “If there ever was an element that deserved a name associated with hell, it is plutonium. This is not only because of its use in atomic bombs—which certainly would amply qualify it—but also because of its fiendishly toxic properties, even in small amounts.” According to Seaborg, “Wilson’s indictment of its poisonous quality [is] almost an understatement,” because a particle “the size of an ordinary speck of dust” can cause lung cancer when inhaled. When inhaled or swallowed, plutonium can deposit in bones, in the lymph nodes, and in the liver, causing tumors. It is so highly reactive that small chips and shavings of it can ignite; it emits radioactivity constantly, and must be stored in small pieces to prevent spontaneous chain reactions.

ON DECEMBER 2, 1942, WHEN SCIENTISTS ON THE Manhattan Project, working in a squash court under the stands of the University of Chicago’s football field, used U-235 to create the world’s first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction, they showed in practical terms how the energy giving atoms their form and strength could be released at will. Once it was clear that a chain reaction could occur, the Manhattan Project scientists knew that an atomic bomb would probably work. Their task from then on was to make as much plutonium as possible, as quickly as they could. At least two technologies had potential to accomplish this goal: the watercooled reactor and the breeder.

According to Alvin Weinberg, a physicist on the Manhattan Project, who later became the director of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Szilard gave the breeder its name. The idea, however, was Turner’s. Once he had figured out that uranium might be transformed into the new element that Seaborg later separated, he suggested that this transformation might be truly advantageous if more plutonium were produced than uranium was consumed. In a public lecture that Szilard gave in 1946, he said, “With this remark of Turner, a whole landscape of the future of atomic energy arose before our eyes in the spring of 1940, and from then on the struggle with ideas ceased and the struggle with the inertia of Man began.” Szilard’s observation demonstrates the Manhattan Project scientists’ recognition that the breeder held promise as a power source even as they worked to develop its potential for weapons.

The work of the Manhattan Project scientists in the early 1940s had revealed that the neutrons released to split atoms behave differently at different speeds. A “fast” neutron moves at about one fortieth the speed of light, or 17 million miles an hour. If a neutron is slowed down, or “moderated,” they discovered, it has a better chance of striking the nucleus of another atom. Such “slow” neutrons move at about 5,000 miles an hour, and, generally speaking, they are safer to work with and easier to control.

Plutonium can be made from uranium that is bombarded by either fast or slow neutrons. The Chicago scientists were intrigued by the possibility Turner had raised of using fast neutrons to “breed” more fissionable material than a reactor consumed as fuel, but they lacked confidence in their ability to work with a fast-neutron reactor, because they never had; most of their experiments had been with slow neutrons (the first chain reaction was accomplished in a slow-neutron reactor, for example). Moreover, a slowneutron reactor can sustain a chain reaction using fuel low in U-235. Because such uranium was scarce, and because a fast-neutron reactor would demand much more of it, the scientists decided in the spring of 1943 in favor of the slowneutron option. They called for reactors using water to moderate the speed of the neutrons and to cool the radioactive core—a strategy that is the basis for the design of conventional reactors today. (Other moderators that have been tried in experimental reactors since the war include graphite and beryllium, both of which slow neutrons down efficiently.)

Such power reactors are called “light-water” plants, because they use ordinary water as a moderator and coolant. “Heavy-water” reactors—using water whose hydrogen atom has an extra neutron, which doubles the atom’s weight—have also been designed and built in the years since nuclear energy was first conceived. The advantage of heavy-water reactors is that the neutrons in their cores are less likely to be absorbed by the water, so that these reactors require even less U-235 than light-water plants do to sustain a chain reaction.

Water-cooled reactors do not bombard a blanket and transmute it into a new element, as breeders do. Instead, tubes containing U-235 diluted by U-238 stand in a core, through which water is pumped, together with “control rods” of non-fissionable material that absorbs the U-235’s neutrons and prevents them from fissioning. When the control rods are withdrawn, the neutrons travel through the water to reach and split U-235 atoms in other tubes, and a chain reaction is created. The water circulating through the core carries off the chain reaction’s heat and steam drives a turbine to make electricity. Because the non-fissionable U-238 in the tubes can absorb neutrons, some of it is transmuted into plutonium, as in a breeder reactor.

Plutonium in the spent fuel of the water-cooled plants designed only to generate electricity is an undesirable and hazardous by-product. But for the Manhattan Project scientists, plutonium was the goal. Because a breeder promised to make much more plutonium than the reactors feasible at the time could, theoretical work on one continued throughout the war.

Szilard was especially productive. In January of 1943, just five weeks after the first chain reaction had been accomplished, he gave a memorandum to Arthur Compton, the leader of the Manhattan Project’s plutonium-making program, spelling out his specifications for a fast-neutron, plutonium-breeder reactor. His proposal was rejected, because slow-neutron non-breeders were already being planned. In April of 1944, Szilard again proposed a fast breeder, this one to be cooled by liquid bismuth or liquid sodium (two metals that conduct heat well but do not slow a neutron’s speed as much as water), and he predicted that the machine could double its original consignment of fuel in four and a half years. But by then, huge slow-neutron, non-breeder reactors and chemical separation plants for the manufacture of plutonium had been built at Hanford, Washington, and a secret bomb-making facility in New Mexico—Los Alamos—was ready to receive the product. All the same, Szilard proposed still another fast breeder, in March of 1945, and predicted that this one could make ten tons of plutonium in three years, doubling its original complement of fuel in one year. In the decades since, the expected “doubling time”—the period required to make as much new fuel as a breeder reactor starts with—has stretched as breeders have actually operated: to five years during the 1950s, between seven and ten years in the 1960s, and at best between forty and fifty years today.

ALTHOUGH BY THE END OF THE WAR NO BREEDER had been built, several schemes for one had evolved, using neutrons at different speeds. Szilard and Fermi favored fast-neutron, liquid-metal-cooled breeders, along the lines of the reactors Szilard had been suggesting—the design upon which the three American breeders and the proposed Clinch River plant are based.

Slow-neutron breeding is also theoretically possible, but much trickier to achieve. In a light-water breeder, the hydrogen in the water absorbs some neutrons, which are therefore lost to the chain reaction. To compensate, the fuel must be enriched with more fissionable material and the core itself must be more compact than in conventional power reactors. Even then, breeding is only marginal. For this reason, the light-water breeder received little attention until the 1970s, when one was tested.

A different slow-neutron scheme, which Wigner conceived during the war, improved on the light-water format. Wigner suggested that a coolant other than water would avoid the problem of absorption. Weinberg studied molten salt’s potential during the 1950s, and designed a molten-salt-cooled reactor as a precursor to a breeder in 1957. It was to use as fuel artificial U-233—a synthetic, fissionable element, which Seaborg discovered in 1941— rather than plutonium, and bombard thorium-232, turning it into more U-233. Unlike conventional reactors, whose fuel is solid and whose moderator is liquid, the molten-salt reactor’s fuel was to be dissolved in the liquid salt and flow through the reactor across solid bars of graphite—the moderator—to bring about a chain reaction. The moltensalt breeder still appeals to many physicists, because it would use slow neutrons to convert a relatively abundant metal (thorium) into an element (U-233) that can fission about as well as the rare U-235 does. The design and engineering are simpler than for a uranium-to-plutonium breeder, and the radioactive core has about one tenth the fissionable material—a significant safety advantage. Thorium breeding has also been explored in a light-water-reactor design.

The nuclear physicist Theodore Taylor, a consultant at Princeton University, says, “Physicists seem to prefer the thorium breeder for its elegance and safety; engineers seem to prefer the plutonium breeder, because of its performance as a producer of fuel.” Milton Shaw, an engineer, prefers plutonium breeders, and during his tenure in the 1960s and early 1970s as the director of reactor research at the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), established by Congress in 1946, he systematically cut off development of alternatives. A small molten-salt non-breeder reactor (called Molten Salt Reactor Experiment, or MSRE, and nicknamed “Misery”) was operated at Oak Ridge in the late 1960s, as part of research on an atomic-powered airplane, but it was abandoned in 1972. No molten-salt breeder has ever been built.

In 1946, the physicist Hans Bethe, of Cornell University, proposed a third scheme: a beryllium-moderated and sodium-cooled breeder of plutonium from U-238 that would slow neutrons to an intermediate speed. The General Electric Company built a reactor near Schenectady, New York, in the late 1940s, to test Bethe’s design, but the reactor didn’t work well, and in 1950 the AEC converted it for research on a sodium-cooled submarine reactor, of the type that later powered the U.S.S. Seawolf. (This submarine gave Jimmy Carter his first exposure to atomic energy. Perhaps his later aversion to it can be explained by the reactor’s trouble containing the sodium—trouble so common that the ship was nicknamed “Twenty Thousand Leaks Under the Sea.”)

Once the theoretical understanding of atomic physics was complete, the excitement and mysteries of science gave way to the more mundane problems of engineering. At that point, Szilard lost interest in breeders, and turned instead to microbiology. Until he died, in 1964, he worked also to control the spread of nuclear weapons. Other nuclear pioneers—Fermi, Zinn, Bethe, and, eventually, Teller—turned their interest in atomic power to finding peaceful uses for it: in medicine, in industrial research, and in the generation of electricity. Indeed, the quest to devise a constructive role for the atom, to compensate for its destructive potential, became, for some, a form of atonement—an act of faith. But the atom was stubborn. Early predictions of cars, trains, and planes powered by pintsized reactors proved impossible to fulfill. The notion that nuclear energy would someday be “too cheap to meter” is, today, an ironic artifact of that hopeful era.

OF ALL THE PIONEERS, WALTER ZINN WAS PERHAPS the most determined to transfer the breeder from paper to concrete. After the war, he moved with Fermi from Columbia to the University of Chicago and, finally, to the Argonne National Laboratory, which was built outside of Chicago and opened in 1946.

Zinn became Argonne’s first director, and under him reactor research flourished. First he tried to put on paper the visions of the breeder that had captivated Szilard, Fermi, and Wigner during the war. By 1947, he was convinced that he could build a successful breeder. The task seemed critical, given the continued scarcity of fissionable material and the increased demand for such material, as a result of the Defense Department’s increased production of the MK3 plutonium bomb, modeled after the “Fat Man” bomb dropped on Nagasaki.

The physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, who had been the director of Los Alamos during the war, wrote a letter to the AEC’s first chairman, David Lilienthal, in October of 1947, urging that “every assistance be given to the Argonne Laboratory to realize their plans as early as possible.” His prestige helped Zinn’s case, and the next month the commission approved construction of a fast-neutron breeder—the Experimental Breeder Reactor Number 1, or EBR-1. The reactor was to be cooled chiefly by liquid sodium and to use U-235 as fuel to convert U-238 to Pu-239. The AEC reported to Congress that the potential of breeders for both power-generation and bomb-making was an important reason for developing such reactors.

The project’s code name was Operation Bootstrap.

EBR-1 was aptly numbered. It was a machine of firsts: the first reactor authorized by the new Atomic Energy Commission; the first to generate electricity from atomic energy; the first to show that breeding new fuel was technically possible; the first to run on plutonium; and the first to have a core meltdown.

Delays and cost overruns—conspicuous features of every breeder since—plagued EBR-1. The commission was told that it would take eighteen months to build the plant. Instead it took two years just to complete the plans, with further delays resulting from the need to custom-make almost every piece of equipment. As the AEC’s historian, Richard Hewlett, wrote later, in an unpublished chronicle of EBR-1: “It was not in the Olympian realms of the nuclear scientist that the obstacles were found but rather in the frustrating work-a-day world of the mechanic, the electrician, and the plumber.”

Zinn and his staff wanted to build their breeder at Argonne, but the AEC’s safety committee thought that the risk of an accidental explosion was too great, and recommended a less-populous site. It took until February of 1949 to find one—an artillery test-range near Arco, Idaho, on a lava-and-sand plateau by the Snake River—and six months more to approve it.

After all that trouble, Zinn’s breeder was delayed once again. Just ten days after the AEC authorized the building of EBR-1 in Idaho, President Harry S. Truman announced that the Soviet Union had exploded an atomic bomb, an event that demanded the reappraisal of all reactor-development programs. Three things saved Zinn’s breeder: although it required weapons-grade fuel (U-235) to run, it would also make such fuel (plutonium), and it could be finished in a short time, at a relatively modest cost of $3 million.

Zinn faced new problems once he moved west. His construction team lived about eighty miles from the site and had to drive to it each day. Winter storms hampered the pouring of concrete, and sand clogged some of the plant’s delicate machinery.

The construction ended in the spring of 1951, and in June the crew loaded the fuel into the football-sized core, only to discover that Zinn’s consignment of U-235 from the weapons stockpile—about ninety-three pounds—wasn’t enough to start a chain reaction; more had to be shipped from Argonne. Finally, in August, the reactor was able to sustain a chain reaction. Then, on December 20, Zinn and his crew slowly raised the reactor’s power level and hooked the machine up to a generator. Zinn wrote in the control-room log book that day, “Electricity flows from atomic energy.”

The next day, Zinn’s crew spent hours tinkering with the reactor to keep it from shutting down—“scramming”— whenever the power level was raised. When the machine finally stayed on and was hooked up to a generator, it supplied power for the whole building. Some of the machinists turned out small brass knobs, as souvenirs, on their lathes. Zinn made one too. They were the first mechanical products of the atomic age. Zinn sent a telegram to the AEC’s director of reactor development, in Washington. Security demanded that his message be cryptic: “Our boy started his journey today. All is well. He was able to undertake the trip without assistance. Merry Xmas.” The AEC announced the achievement on December 29.

In June of 1953, EBR-1 proved that breeding was technically possible, when chemists separated a few milligrams of plutonium from the fuel—not much, but Gordon Dean, the new chairman of the AEC, made the most of it, announcing that breeding had been achieved. By then, power had begun to replace weaponry as the reactor’s chief goal, and Dean warned that breeding was so far a slow and difficult process, which might be too expensive to be adapted directly for commercial power. The “real significance,” he said, was that the breeder could transform naturally abundant U-238 into fuel for other kinds of power reactors.

The AEC wasn’t as quick to announce what happened at EBR-1 on November 29, 1955, when the reactor crew tested the radioactive core’s ability to run with less sodium coolant. They discovered it couldn’t. When the chain reaction surged rapidly, the supervisor told the operator to “scram” the reactor, but the operator didn’t hear, having just taken a call from his wife on the control-room telephone. The supervisor leaped over a table in the control room and hit the scram button, but he was two seconds too late. The core overheated and more than half the fuel melted, blowing radioactive gas out of the building. No one inside was harmed, but it took two years to decontaminate the core and clean out the mangled fuel.

Zinn had opposed the core-heating tests of EBR-1, but had been overruled by his superiors at the AEC. The day after the reactor’s meltdown, he called Washington to report the bad news. As he recalls his message, it was, like his coded telegram, brief but portentous: “Well, fellas, it’s happened. Nobody’s hurt, as far as we can tell. But remember, I told you so.”

After EBR-1, Zinn built another reactor at the Idaho test site—EBR-2, which is the most successful breeder in the U.S. to date. For EBR-2, Zinn submerged the main components in a sealed pool of sodium coolant, and this strategy has proved to be simpler and safer than EBR-1’s loops of pipe.

EBR-2 is a breeder that does not breed. It has been used instead to generate electricity, test various breeder cores, and demonstrate that plutonium made in a fast-neutron reactor can be recovered and refabricated as new fuel. Its success is measured chiefly by its longevity. Although EBR-2, like other sodium-cooled breeders, has been prone to fires, none has been serious, and the reactor has run almost continuously since it was started up, in 1964. Nevertheless, its design has been rejected by American planners, though other countries have employed it with relatively good results.

BREEDER CORES HAVE GROWN STEADILY SINCE THE 114-pound, football-sized one that melted in EBR1. The core of EBR-2 weighs 510 pounds, and is the size of the glass jug on an office water-cooler. In the first commercial breeder, Fermi-1, whose fuel also suffered a partial meltdown, the 1,000-pound core is the size of a fifty-five-gallon drum. And if the Clinch River breeder is built, its core will weigh 11 tons and be the size of a hotwater heater. The cores of future breeders will be even larger, perhaps weighing 50 tons. The fuel in a breeder core is “fundamentally explosive,” Wigner has said; “I don’t like the idea of having thousands of pounds of plutonium at one place.”

What worries Wigner and many other physicists is that in large reactors, the plutonium may melt and compact into clusters that can form new critical masses—perhaps setting off small atomic explosions. In water-cooled, nonbreeder reactors like the one at Three Mile Island, whose fuel is only about 3 percent fissionable U-235, the neutrons are slowred to increase their chances of fissioning other U235 atoms, thus maintaining the chain reaction. Loss of the coolant speeds up the neutrons, with the result that they fission fewer atoms and the chain reaction slows down. But in the breeder, whose core is about 15 percent U-235 or Pu239, the challenge is not to encourage a chain reaction but to control it. So many fissionable atoms are packed together that the probability that a neutron will hit one and split it is extremely high from the start. Sodium coolant absorbs the heat given off by the rapid chain reaction and keeps the core’s temperature stable. If the coolant boiled away, the temperature would rise within a few millionths of a second and the fuel would melt. The AEC and its successors have called this a “hypothetical core-disruptive accident,” or HCDA—jargon that has the effect of minimizing what may be a fatal flaw in breeder technology.

Hans Bethe has postulated that if an atomic explosion occurred in a breeder, its force would equal a few hundred pounds of TNT, rather than the kilotons and megatons released in a planned nuclear explosion. He says, “I think this [explosive force] can be contained in the reactor vessel. But those who have studied this problem don’t say [the vessel will never be breached], and I wish they could.”

The HCDA is not an explosion of the reactor itself, which would level the landscape with a blast and fireball. Instead, it refers to small atomic explosions inside the reactor, which could rip apart the steel vessel surrounding the core and its coolant. The explosions would spew lethal radioactive gases and debris into a large building that is designed to contain just such a surge. But if the pressure became too great, or the wrong valves were opened in the confusion of an accident, as has happened at other plants, these deadly gases could escape into the atmosphere, perhaps killing thousands of people downwind and contaminating the soil and groundwater for generations.

This is considered a “worst-case scenario” by nuclearsafety experts—one that has a very slight probability. But the risk is serious enough that it helped to delay for a number of years the construction of Fermi-1, in Michigan. The HCDA is an issue that members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission have yet to consider as they decide whether or not to approve construction of the Clinch River breeder.

WHEN WALKER CISLER TALKS ABOUT HIS MANY trips to Russia, one event stands out: a bath he took at a guest house in the Urals. “It was beautiful,” he recalled recently. “I had a bathtub full of hot water heated by the BN-600—heated by the atom, heated by a breeder.” Cisler would love to bathe at his home, in Grosse Pointe Park, Michigan, in water heated by a breeder, and as the president and, later, the chairman of the board (now retired) of the Detroit Edison Company, he worked to build and run the Fermi breeder.

The plant cost more than $140 million and generated what is doubtless the most expensive privately produced electricity in U.S. history. “We never figured it out—on purpose,” a company spokeswoman says.

Cisler formally proposed building the Fermi fast breeder in 1955. Two years earlier, he had declared: “We do not expect any appropriations of public money to our project.” In the end, however, with his pride in free enterprise shattered by lengthy and expensive construction delays, design and operating errors, a costly and dangerous partial core-melt, and repeated accidents with the breeder’s sodium coolant, Cisler did ask the federal government for money to keep his plant running, and he is still bitter that he was refused. “He dreamed the impossible dream, and it was just that: impossible,” a local businessman later told a writer for the Detroit Free Press.

Cisler, a veteran of the War Production Board during World War II, joined Detroit Edison in 1945. He says that having seen “the industrial strength of our country focused on a single purpose” in wartime, he hoped that the country’s industrial strength would be focused anew after the war, on commercial uses of the atom. The managers of Detroit Edison had themselves been eager for atomic power since 1940, when Alex Dow, who was then Detroit Edison’s president, ordered a study of the energy potential in uranium. The utility’s annual report for 1945 asserted, “If and when atomic energy is applied to power production, we hope to be among the first to take advantage of it.” The AEC’s Industrial Advisory Group, of which Cisler was a member, recommended in 1948 that classified nuclear technology be shared with private industry.

The utilities came to regard making plutonium along with electricity as a new way to express their patriotism during the Cold War. They lobbied hard to amend the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 to allow the utilities to sell nuclear power and forbid the government from doing so. (Because power made incidentally at the government’s plutonium production or research facilities could be sold, as the act was amended in 1954, the Clinch River breeder, whose chief purpose is research, complies with the law.) President Eisenhower had declared an “Atoms for Peace” program, and many companies were enthusiastic about joining Detroit Edison to build a breeder. In 1955, twenty-five electric utilities, four engineering and construction firms, and four manufacturers formed Atomic Power Development Associates (APDA). The new group then sent the AEC a proposal for a 100-megawatt fast breeder, which would sell steam to Detroit Edison, the principal partner, and plutonium to the federal government.

Lewis Strauss, a Wall Street financier who shared Cisler’s faith in private industry, was the chairman of the AEC and an informal adviser to Eisenhower at the time. Strauss announced the Fermi project at the first UN conference on peaceful uses of the atom—an announcement that he hoped would upstage the Soviet Union’s plans to build a breeder. For Strauss and Cisler, just as Cold War ideology defined the pursuit of the breeder as a race, so free-market values dictated that building the breeder should be a private endeavor. Indeed, to this day, the breeder’s promise of ideological advantage and business profits from both domestic and foreign markets has sustained the promoters’ faith in the technology and buttressed their pitch to Congress and the public, despite rising opposition and almost routine mechanical failures.

The Democratic Senator Albert Gore, of Tennessee, challenged the wisdom of the 1954 amendments, and introduced a bill to change them, in order to allow the federal government to build and run six nuclear plants. Cisler and Strauss both testified against the bill; in doing so, they angered another senator, Clinton P. Anderson, of New Mexico, who was the chairman of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy and a Democrat who favored a wider federal role in generating and selling nuclear power.

Gore’s bill did not pass the House, but Anderson and Strauss clashed again, in 1956, over the Fermi breeder’s construction permit. The AEC’s Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards, a panel of engineers and scientists, was required to review such permit applications but did not have to publish its findings. The advisory committee had reported to the AEC that “there is insufficient information available at this time to give assurance that the [Fermi breeder] can be operated at this site without public hazard.” The advisory committee also doubted that federal safety research then under way would serve to diminish the risk before the plant began to operate. Anderson demanded the report’s release, and Strauss was slow to comply. Two weeks after the report was finally made public, the AEC, ignoring the warnings of its advisers, voted three-to-one to grant Fermi a provisional construction permit.

Enraged, Anderson called the permit the “result of Star Chamber proceedings,” and complained that the AEC was confusing its promotional and regulatory functions—a charge that troubled the commission throughout its tenure and eventually brought about its reorganization. Representative Chet Holifield, a California Democrat and a member of the joint committee, attacked Strauss for “overruling the grave warnings” of his own advisory committee and proceeding “in a reckless and arrogant manner.” Four days later, at the Fermi breeder’s hastily arranged groundbreaking ceremonies on the shore of Lake Erie, Strauss chided his congressional critics; he said that their opposition “aids the attack which is being directed against the free enterprise development of nuclear power in this country.”

Anderson retaliated by urging several citizens’ groups and the United Auto Workers to protest the plant’s licensing in hearings the following year. And when the nuclearplant insurance bill (the Price-Anderson Act) was passed, in 1957, he added a provision making the AEC advisory committee a statutory body whose findings must be public. Beyond that, he won a further amendment—which has grieved the nuclear industry ever since—requiring public participation in all nuclear-plant licensing. Finally, Anderson successfully led the Senate opposition when Eisenhower nominated Strauss to be his secretary of commerce, in 1959.

In addition to congressional obstacles, the Fermi breeder had to survive a long battle in the courts. When the AEC issued its final construction permit, in 1958, the United Auto Workers appealed, and in 1960 the AEC’s ruling was reversed. Only after the Supreme Court reversed the decision, in 1961, was the permit allowed to stand.

DETROIT EDISON’S TROUBLES WITH THE BREEDER were far from over. Construction and reconstruction were continual. Technical and design problems strung out for years: among other things, the core and the steam generators had to be redesigned.

Steam generators are troublesome pieces of equipment in all sodium-cooled breeders. The generators are vessels in which hot sodium from the core flows around pipes filled with water. When the water absorbs heat from the sodium, it becomes steam and drives a turbine. But sodium is a volatile metal that explodes on contact with water and burns in air. Even pinhole-sized leaks in the pipes can therefore have destructive and time-consuming consequences. In 1962, the first of several sodium explosions at the Fermi plant ripped out part of the reactor’s coolant system. Indeed, sodium-water “reactions,” as the plant staff called them, became so frequent that the principal steam-generator pipes were named after the sound they made: Ker-Pow #1, Ker-Pow #2, and Ker-Pow #3. Although few serious injuries occurred, the repairs were costly and took many months to complete.

After the Fermi breeder at last went “critical,” in 1963— four years behind schedule—more safety and repair problems held up the plant’s operating license for another two years. More engineering problems followed licensing, and the plant did not begin commercial operation until 1966.

Cisler and his colleagues did not celebrate for long. Six safety devices, called “conical flow guides,” had been added to the underside of the core, to improve the rush of sodium to the fuel, but after only three months of operation at low power, two of these foot-long plates broke loose and blocked the coolant’s flow. A small part of the core melted, alarms went off, and the reactor was scrammed. Operators didn’t know for months what had caused the fuel to melt, how much damage had been done, or how to deal with the radioactive debris. The fact that they knew so little led to concern on the part of the operators and the AEC that more fuel might melt. Fortunately, none did, and no one was harmed. The accident could have been much worse. According to one state public-health study, several thousand people downwind might have died if the containment building had been breached.

The fuel-melting accident only compounded the seriousness of still other disappointments. The plant had not bred any new fuel, because it kept breaking down. But as it turned out, even if the reactor had bred plutonium, the government had less and less reason to buy any for weapons, chiefly because it had begun to produce more plutonium of its own, at military plants, and bombs were being designed to use less. In 1954, Cisler had hoped to earn $100 a gram for the separated plutonium from the breeder. Instead, by 1957, its value was only $30 a gram, and by the early 1960s, about $10 a gram.

In 1970, the Fermi plant was started again, and ran for a while intermittently. To help recoup the rising costs, the owners thought of turning their commercial venture into a research project, but the fuel itself was nearly depleted, its radioactive power run down like a dying battery. Cisler tried to raise money from U.S. and foreign utilities to install an experimental core, with little success. Reluctantly, he turned to the AEC, which had conducted basic breeder research on Detroit Edison’s behalf, and invited Seaborg, who was the chairman of the AEC from 1961 to 1971, to visit the site.

“We painted up the place to make it look like a going operation, but the fuel was so weak we really had to watch our timing,” Eldon Alexanderson, who was then the plant’s assistant superintendent, recalls. The operators wanted to “put on a show” for Seaborg, he says, and did so with precision: “We’d get up to full power just when [Seaborg] came through the gate. And once he went out the gate, we’d turn it right off. That fuel was on its last legs. And we weren’t very trustful of our thermocouples [incore thermometers], either; they were giving us slightly wrong temperatures.”

In 1972, after Seaborg’s visit, the AEC decided that the Fermi plant was a lost cause. A memo on Cisler’s appeal for federal funds concluded that the research data from Fermi would be “perhaps useful, though not a priority input.” The plant was shut down that year, after having run at full power for only about a hundred days in all. Cisler saw by 1972 that other private utilities would not chip in to help him, because the AEC was pressuring them to raise $250 million for a newer dream machine: the Clinch River breeder.

Walter J. McCarthy, Jr., was for a time the general manager of the coalition of owners that oversaw Fermi. Today he is the chairman of Detroit Edison’s board. “My view right now, for an electric-power company like ours, is that the principal focus of attention on nuclear power should not be the breeder; it should, in fact, be making the lightwater reactors operate reliably, safely, and routinely,” he says. The Fermi plant continues to give him some concern. The sodium coolant—70,000 gallons that are still slightly radioactive—is stored there in airtight drums, but must be carefully removed by next year. To avoid the cost of disposal, the Fermi sodium has been given to the Clinch River project. (If that plant is killed, Detroit Edison will have to find another taker or a hazardous-waste site that can accept the sodium.) Once the sodium is removed, McCarthy will be able to leave the problem of Fermi’s radioactive vessel to his successors. The vessel can’t be dismantled for another fifty years—the time needed for its radioactivity to decline enough for crews to remove it without costly and cumbersome shielding.

THROUGHOUT THE 1960S, WHILE THE FERMI PLANT suffered one blow after another, Washington’s view of breeders couldn’t have been rosier. As chairman of the AEC, Seaborg often made visionary speeches that described the “plutonium economy” of the future. He talked of building nuclear-powered merchant ships, planes, and rockets. The detonation of small atomic bombs would open up new sea-level canals and loosen natural-gas deposits.

Seaborg saw future heavy industry built around a complex of large breeder reactors many times the size of today’s plants. Their plentiful and cheap power, for both heat and electricity, would recycle garbage and produce new metal alloys, ceramics, and plastics. Because power costs would be low, it would pay to extract raw materials from trash, creating a “junkless society.” What’s more, he said, “as used in breeder reactors,” plutonium “will be the fuel of the future,” a metal whose value “may someday make it a logical contender to replace gold as the standard of our monetary system.” He mentioned this possibility in a speech on “large-scale alchemy,” which he gave at a celebration of Hanford’s twenty-fifth anniversary, in 1968.

“By the end of the 1950s, the AEC realized it had pretty well completed its mission: uranium-enrichment plants and plutonium-production lines [for weapons] were going, and [the AEC] spun off the light-water reactor technology and got it on its way,” Victor Gilinsky says. A nuclear-policy analyst since 1971, and an NRC commissioner since 1975, Gilinsky understands the AEC as well as anyone. “The AEC was a collection of odd projects, and [the commissioners] were looking for something to motivate people, he says. “But I think also there must have been a concern that unless you get involved in a large, multi-year project, your budget is vulnerable.”

That large, multi-year project was the breeder. By pitching the machine to President John F. Kennedy’s desire for innovation and world prestige (a desire that placed the breeder in competition with the space race for funds), Seaborg used it to revitalize his agency. In his 1962 report, “Civilian Nuclear Power,” a response to Kennedy’s request for a “new and hard look at the role of nuclear power in our economy,” Seaborg argued that an ambitious breeder program would provide for “the maintenance of U.S. technological leadership in the world. ...” His report described breeders as “essential to long-range major use of nuclear energy.”

The Joint Committee on Atomic Energy willingly shared Seaborg’s view. Representative Holifield, who, during the Fermi debates, had challenged the AEC’s “reckless and arrogant manner,” did warn Seaborg in 1962 that “major problems remain to be solved” with breeders, but within a year Holifield was advocating that billions more be spent for breeder development, “to bring in a perpetual source of energy.”

Not everyone was convinced, however. Louis Roddis, Jr., then the president of the Atomic Industrial Forum, questioned Seaborg’s “urgency and optimism” about breeders. Lilienthal mocked the breeder: “When you get asked hard questions about the old-fashioned atomic-power plant, just say ‘breeder’ and you’re off the hook, because a breeder atomic plant has never yet been built, so who can dispute the lovely forecasts?”

Nevertheless, the breeder, helped by practical politics, was on its way. In 1964, as a concession to the coal lobby, which feared the nuclear-power industry’s competition, the joint committee decided to cut research-and-development money for light-water reactors (a close threat to coal power) and to increase the budget for the breeder (a more distant threat). Within the AEC, the breeder became supreme. “The whole AEC became a vehicle for this project, and everything had to fit with it,” Gilinsky says.

The AEC hired Milton Shaw, who had been an administrator in the Navy’s submarine program under Hyman Rickover, to direct reactor development. Shaw served from 1964 to 1973, and his stewardship both advanced and retarded breeder development. Shaw focused on the liquid-metal fast breeder reactor (LMFBR), cooled by sodium with a U-238-to-Pu-239 fuel cycle, because he believed that this scheme was the closest to perfection. Thus, during his tenure, breeders cooled by helium gas (which has even less of a moderating effect than sodium), steam (an alternative that one of the nuclear contractors pressed for), and salt were essentially abandoned, and thorium-toU-233 as an alternative fuel cycle was slighted. At the same time, having limited his options, Shaw deferred building a demonstration breeder and concentrated instead on an ambitious component-testing program, which delayed for years the building of an actual plant—a strategy he had learned from Rickover. Above all, Shaw was cautious. “My wife jokes that when I build a dog house, it’ll withstand a seismic event,” he said recently.

While Shaw was narrowing the scope and slowing the pace, the AEC commissioners pushed on with their vision of breeders as the saviors of an economy that would soon be starved for energy. In a supplement, issued in 1967, to Seaborg’s 1962 report, the AEC said that “immediate emphasis” should be put on the fast-flux test facility (FFTF) at Hanford, a reactor designed to test breeder fuel, but the AEC promised that “a number of sodium-cooled fastbreeder demonstration plants [would] be built during the 1970s.” In 1967, the AEC gave Shaw’s LMFBR its highest priority, predicting that the doubling time for producing new fuel could be as short as eight to ten years—then also the doubling time of U.S. electricity demand.

But politicians and industry executives wanted more than rhetoric: they wanted contracts. Representative Craig Hosmer, a Republican of California, was aware of European breeder programs that had commenced, and he proposed in 1967 that the United States build three prototype plants: one cooled by liquid metal, one by gas, and one by steam. Also in 1967, the leading reactor contractors, General Electric and Westinghouse, urged the joint committee to authorize a breeder demonstration plant within two years. General Electric favored the steam-cooled breeder, because it had mastered a similar technology for light-water reactors, rather than the sodium-cooled model favored by Shaw. Both firms saw breeders as useful tools for selling their light-water plants to utility companies, since breeders would guarantee future fuel supplies.

President Lyndon B. Johnson mentioned the breeder’s importance in his 1967-budget message, but at the end of the year, at a ceremony marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of the first chain reaction, he cautioned that plutonium could be diverted from breeders for weapons. In 1968, the Edison Electric Institute, a trade group for the privately owned utilities, released its own breeder study, drafted by a panel that Walker Cisler chaired. The institute panel concluded that “the electric utility industry needs fast breeder reactors to protect its rapidly growing investment in nuclear power by conserving low-cost ores,” and recommended building at least two LMFBR demonstration plants in the early 1970s and continuing work on gasand steam-cooled designs.

Thus, by the late 1960s, pressure was increasing to build more experimental and commercial breeders—pressure arising in part from glorious economic predictions and the knowledge that other countries were moving ahead with their own breeder technologies.

Seaborg worked to make President Richard M. Nixon an advocate of the breeder in 1969, using as his agent the chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, Paul McCracken. In a letter to McCracken about energy options, in 1970, Seaborg called the breeder “an urgent national need.” By his logic, the program was inevitable. Seaborg wrote: “Clearly, all the considerations—technical, economic, and political—have converged in a most timely and mutually reinforcing manner so as to impel us to move forward aggressively with development of the breeder system.” Apparently, during this decade of dreams, the question asked about the breeder wasn’t “Why?” It was “Where?” and “When?”

WHEN PRESIDENT NIXON ANNOUNCED THE FIRST national energy policy, in 1971, he touted breeders as “our best hope today for meeting the nation’s growing demand for economical, clean energy.” But in the same year, the need for breeders began to ebb. As new deposits of natural uranium were discovered, fears of a nuclear-fuel shortage by the late 1980s were eased. (The shortage isn’t expected now until 2050 or beyond, if it occurs at all.) The number of new nuclear plants was smaller than the AEC had expected, as a result of rising construction costs and delays. Furthermore, electricity prices, which had fallen steadily since 1950, leveled off in 1971 and then began an ascent that has continued to the present— the result of rising costs for oil, coal, and new plants. In reaction, the growth rate of electricity consumption fell drastically, and with it the need for many nuclear-power plants and breeders to fuel them.

At this turning point in 1971, the AEC revised its forecasts of installed nuclear capacity radically. For the year 1975, the forecast was dropped from 59 to 54 gigawatts; the actual capacity in 1975 proved to be 37. (One gigawatt, or one billion watts, is about the capacity of one large lightwater plant.) For the year 1980, the forecast w7as dropped from 150 to 132 gigawatts; the actual capacity proved to be 53. And for the year 1985, the forecast was dropped from 300 to 280 gigawatts; the capacity expected now is about 90. Longer-range federal forecasts of American nuclear capacity have fallen even more steeply as the nation’s demand for electricity has declined and nuclear plants have been delayed: for the year 1990, from 508 gigawatts predicted in 1972 to 121 predicted now, and for the year 2000, from 1,200 gigawatts predicted in 1972 to 165 now. Thus, well before the federal government and a group of utilities signed their agreement to fund a 375-megawatt breeder on the Clinch River—the reactor itself to be made by Westinghouse and the plant to be operated by the government-owned Tennessee Valley Authorityofficial predictions had begun to undermine the justification for it.

At about the same time, estimates of the plant’s cost began to increase. “The AEC had an estimated cost for the Clinch River reactor of about $500 million—an estimate that was at the time known to be stripped down,” Chauncey Starr, vice chairman of the Electric Power Research Institute, said recently. “It was a sales number more than a realistic number, and a lot of people in the industry knew it at the time.”

Still the utility industry went along, agreeing to pay half of Clinch River’s cost. A few executives believed that the breeder actually would be needed soon, but most thought that they simply had no choice. “The industry had no interest in getting in, in a financial sense,” Starr says. “The driving force was the AEC. The AEC was asked by Congress, ‘Why do you want to go ahead with this program?’ and they said, ‘Well, industry wants it. Industry is the customer.’ And then Congress said to the AEC, ‘We don’t believe it unless industry has some of their money in it.’ The AEC wanted industry to put money in, and brought pressure on the industry, on the basis that at that time industry was getting into the light-water reactor business (and] needed AEC support. Given a choice, I don’t think industry would have put up the money.”

The utility companies that had already committed themselves to nuclear power were especially vulnerable to the AEC’s pressure, because they believed they needed to guarantee future fuel supplies for their reactors, and they did not want to invite the displeasure of the commission’s regulators. Thus, the nuclear-equipped utilities joined the AEC in trying to persuade the rest of the industry that atomic energy held the key to the future. To do this, they cited the predictions made by the AEC that nuclear power would become more economical than other energy sources; the conviction of the reactor manufacturers that “economies of scale” would allow bigger nuclear plants to generate electricity more cheaply than smaller ones; and, finally, their own belief that neither of these promises could be realized until commercial breeders yielding an inexhaustible supply of cheap fuel had been developed.

From the beginning, many utilities had doubts about what their commitment to the breeder would entail. “Like Alice, they feel they will be falling down a hole without knowing where it leads,” Peter McTague, who is now the chief executive officer of Green Mountain Power Corporation, in Vermont, said at an Atomic Industrial Forum seminar on the breeder in 1971. (At the time, he was a consultant on utility-plant engineering.) “Many of them are afraid that, instead of a rabbit hole leading to wondrous adventures, it may be a rat hole leading to financial disaster,” he said. At the utility industry’s urging, therefore, the joint committee persuaded Congress in 1972 to require the federal government to pay for all cost overruns incurred in building the Clinch River plant. The $250 million agreed to in 1972 would be all that the utilities would ever have to put up. (This sum now represents a small fraction of Clinch River’s projected total expense.) Nevertheless, several companies refused to sign.

Today, although more than 700 utilities have been enlisted to help pay for the plant, even some of the most enthusiastic contributors have regrets. “If there was any legal way that I could not pay that money, I would seek it out,” says McCarthy, of Detroit Edison. (His utility has already paid half of the $6.9 million it pledged when Walker Cisler was chairman of the board.)

Once the utilities had committed money to Clinch River, they expected to have a say in its development. But the utility-government entity that was created to supervise the project proved to be leaderless. Decisions fell to everyone, and to no one. Delays and compromises abounded. Costs escalated. And as the federal government found itself paying a larger share of the bill, it naturally expected—and gained—a larger share of the responsibility. A reorganization of the project in 1975 gave the Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA) a dominant role, but still required that the utilities participate in much of the decisionmaking. Today, the Clinch River project is run for the most part by the Department of Energy, which is also providing more than 90 percent of the money. (The AEC was abolished in 1975. Its regulatory functions were assigned to the new Nuclear Regulatory Commission and its research and promotional functions to ERDA, also newly created. In 1977, ERDA was turned into the cabinet-level Department of Energy.)

Control aside, many participants today feel that the project was a mistake for another reason: Clinch River has to undergo complete licensing by the NRC. The AEC used licensing to convince the joint committee that the plant would demonstrate for the utility companies all the steps they would have to take whenever they began to build breeders on their own. The argument had some appeal at the time. Since then, however, nuclear-plant licensing has changed fundamentally. In 1969, when the plant was being planned, Congress passed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which required that environmentalimpact statements be drafted for major construction projects. In 1971, a federal court ruled that the AEC must abide by the rules of NEPA in its regulation of nuclear plants. The same year, the Scientists’ Institute for Public Information successfully sued to have the impact statement cover the potential impact of the entire “plutonium economy” that would follow from the breeder’s deployment, as well as the impact on the Clinch River site itself. The AEC issued this broad impact statement in 1974, and its optimism has provided grounds for attack by opponents ever since.

There are still other reasons for the utilities to regret their involvement. The problem of reprocessing is one. When the Clinch River contract was coming together, in 1971, there appeared to be a commercial reprocessing industry for spent nuclear fuel in the U.S. Today there is none. Reprocessing plants are essential to the breeder, because they would chemically separate plutonium and uranium from used fuel in both light-water and breeder reactors: plutonium made in light-water plants would go to a breeder as start-up fuel; later, when plutonium was “bred,” it would be shipped to light-water plants and other breeders as new fuel.

The reprocessing plant at West Valley, New York, worked intermittently from 1966 until 1972, when it was shut down. Its owners have abandoned the operation, as a result of safety and environmental problems. General Electric decided in 1974 that a new reprocessing plant it had just finished at Morris, Illinois, was unworkable, and beyond fixing. A third commercial plant, at Barnwell, South Carolina, was under construction when the breeder contract was signed. Presidents Gerald R. Ford and Jimmy Carter deferred commercial reprocessing indefinitely, because of the weapons-proliferation threat it posed, and construction has been halted. Even though the Reagan Administration favors reprocessing, the plant probably will not be finished, for lack of funds. Barnwell’s owner, Allied-General Nuclear Services, may try to sell it to the government-owned Savannah River nuclear complex, adjacent, for the recovery of plutonium for weapons. The Exxon Nuclear Corporation once talked about building a reprocessing plant near Oak Ridge, with the breeder as its chief client, but this plan has also been dropped.

In addition to all of these discouragements, much of the popular enthusiasm for nuclear power that once existed had begun to evaporate by the 1970s. After the 1978 Arab oil embargo, nuclear-power advocates thought that they would become heroes, because they could provide a reliable alternative energy source. But the demand for oil arises chiefly from uses other than electrical power, and so nuclear plants are not really a factor—the industry’s claims to the contrary notwithstanding. Also, the recession caused by rising energy costs provoked a cut in the demand for electricity and wiped out the need for more generating capacity. All nuclear plants ordered since 1974 have been canceled, and none has been ordered since 1978, the year before the notorious accident at Three Mile Island. Thus, to many who believe that nuclear power should have a bright future, the Clinch River plant has become a last hope. Alvin Weinberg calls the Clinch River breeder the “holy grail of nuclear power’s developers.” It poses a dilemma for them, as well. As one publicist for the utility industry reasons, if the utilities don’t support Clinch River, they could jeopardize the prospects of any other breeder they might favor. On the other hand, if they do support it and the reactor is canceled—or is built and doesn’t work—they could lose their credibility with the public and Congress.

UNTIL 1974, THE CLINCH RIVER BREEDER HAD AN easy time on Capitol Hill. That year, the protective body that had once nurtured breeders—the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy—was abolished in a broad congressional reform, and jurisdiction for nuclear affairs was scattered among more than a dozen committees and subcommittees in the House and Senate. Each one has become a potential battleground.

When cost estimates jumped to $700 million, in 1972, the increase was explained as the normal cost growth, or cost overrun, associated with federal research-and-development projects {proponents speak of “growth” and opponents of “overruns”). But when estimates of the final cost reached $1.7 billion in 1974, and exceeded $2 billion in 1977, boosters of the Clinch River project were hard pressed.

Much was at stake. By then, the AEC had canceled plans for other demonstration breeders, and turned most of its attention to Clinch River. The commission had been forced to economize, in part because of expensive problems incurred by the FFTF, the small fast-neutron reactor at Hanford.

The FFTF was supposed to cost $87.5 million and be finished in 1974; its cost was $647 million when it began operation last year. To many, the FFTF is a machine without a mission, because, except for its smaller size, it is similar in design to the Clinch River reactor. The FFTF can never be a substitute for Clinch River, however, because it is not supposed to breed fuel or to make electricity. Instead, it was designed mainly to show how different breeder fuels perform. The results were supposed to help the planners of Clinch River, but the delays in building the FFTF have voided this function: the Clinch River plans were 87 percent complete when the FFTF began to run.

One reason the Clinch River breeder is such a contentious project is that, unlike the FFTF, it has become a hodgepodge of missions for a mixed group of backers. As other breeder projects have been canceled or deferred, the Clinch River reactor has been saddled with three different functions at once: it is to be a model of a larger breeder; an experimental plant to test new components; and a demonstration plant licensed and run in a utility system, to show the economic potential of breeders. Ordinarily, such functions are separate in research and development. According to Freeman Dyson, a nuclear physicist at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, “If you do a research-anddevelopment program, most of the things ought to fail. That’s the stupidity of doing things on a big scale. When you reach the scale at which you can’t afford to have a failure, then you’re too big. Dyson says, “There should have been about twenty-five small-scale experiments, which could have easily been done for the cost of one Clinch River.”

IN 1977, AS COSTS ROSE, ERDA CONVENED A PANEL OF breeder experts. The panel was dominated by nuclearindustry representatives, and voted—predictably— eight to four to continue the project. The minority advocated dropping the Clinch River breeder because the projected demand for electricity had fallen and the fuel-efficiency of light-water reactors had potential for improvement. (Later studies by the General Accounting Office have asserted that the Clinch River project lacks direction and purpose, involves dubious accounting and contracting procedures, and—if built—should be the last breeder until the technology’s future is thoroughly reassessed.)

President Carter took office with a strong personal dislike for plutonium, breeders, and nuclear proliferation, and he, too, tried to stop Clinch River. His opposition actually seemed to help the project for a while: Carter gave the breeder’s supporters a common foe to rally against, and he gave Congress an institutional reason to reject his pleas. According to Starr, EPRI’s vice chairman, “Congress resented that the White House wasn‘t working with it on many programs,” and so it used the breeder “as a symbol of its political independence from the White House.” Congress voted money to continue work on the project throughout Carter’s term in office, although by narrowing margins.

One of the congressmen who criticized the breeder in the late 1970s was David Stockman, who was then a Republican representative of Michigan. He didn’t gain much attention for his views then, but they have been invoked often since. In 1977, Stockman said to Congress that “no further subsidization” of the Clinch River program was justified, because it was “totally incompatible with our free-market approach to energy policy.” But when Stockman became President Ronald Reagan’s budget director, he changed his position on the breeder, in order to ensure the support of Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker, of Tennessee, for the 1982 budget. In an interview published in this magazine in 1981, Stockman said, “I didn’t have to get rolled. I just got out of the way. It just wasn’t worth fighting. This package will go nowhere without Baker, and Clinch River is just life or death to Baker. A very poor reason, I know.”

Baker’s stake in Clinch River runs deep. First, as a former member of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, he has been for years an avid supporter of nuclear power. He is personally convinced that it represents the best hope for this country’s energy future. Second, he shares his state’s pride in the nuclear achievements that have been made at Oak Ridge since the war, by the national laboratory and more than a dozen research-reactor projects there. Finally, the breeder means money and jobs for local manufacturers, construction workers, contractors, and supporting businesses.

At present, among the states in which research and manufacture related to Clinch River are being done, Tennessee ranks third—after California and Pennsylvania—in economic benefits from the project, with 502 jobs and $164.8 million. Its share will increase dramatically if the plant is built. At the height of construction, the project is expected to create between 4,000 and 8,000 jobs, the largest percentage of them in Tennessee. And of Clinch River’s total expenditures, Tennessee should collect more revenue than any other state. The reactor’s total cost is open to debate. The Department of Energy has estimated a cost of $3.6 billion, but congressional critics think that the General Accounting Office’s figure of $8.5 billion is closer to the mark. According to the GAO, the $3.6 billion estimate among other things understates the cost of plutonium and of running the plant, overstates the potential revenue from selling power, and omits interest on the money borrowed for the project, which alone may come to $3.9 billion. Of course, the more Clinch River ultimately costs, the more Tennessee is likely to prosper—a fact that must give Baker little pleasure when he faces the reactor’s critics.

Other fiscal conservatives have taken up the fight that the Reagan Administration has avoided. Indeed, one sign of Clinch River’s vulnerability these days is that debates have begun about how much money would have to be spent to end it. A lobbyist for the nuclear industry estimates that scrapping the project could cost $2 billion or more, including damage suits from the utilities that donated money outright, expenses to landscape the site, and contracts for equipment that will never be used. (About half of the components have already been built.) The House Science and Technology Committee, which last voted, in 1981, to delete funds for the Clinch River breeder, has estimated a cost of $44.5 million. The General Accounting Office has made several estimates as well, none of them greater than $1 billion.

THE CLINCH RIVER BREEDER IS ONE OF THE LAST great federal enterprises (outside the Pentagon) remaining to be scaled down or ended in the effort to reduce the deficit. It seems that in the government, only Reagan and Baker stand between the project and its swift abandonment. The Taxpayers Coalition Against Clinch River Breeder Reactor, founded last year, includes such economically conservative groups as the National Taxpayers Union and the Council for a Competitive Economy, along with traditionally liberal environmental groups such as the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, and the National Audubon Society.

Deferring to the new emphasis on economic retrenchment, the Taxpayers Coalition likes to quote the economist Kenneth J. Arrow, who has written that the Clinch River breeder “is not an economically sound investment at this time,” and the economist Walter W. Heller, who has written that spending more on the plant “would be throwing good money after bad.”

Clinch River’s critics raise the question of the plant’s technical wisdom, as well. S. David Freeman, former chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority and now a member of the authority’s governing board, has called the plant a “technological turkey,” by which he means that it is obsolete, as a result of delays and foreign developments.

Among nuclear scientists who do not wholeheartedly favor Clinch River, some fear that to criticize it might be interpreted as an attack on the promise of nuclear power in general. Nuclear power has worked as a source of electricity at a lower cost than comparably sized coal-fired plants in some parts of the United States, and more economically than oil in most states; nor does it routinely pollute the atmosphere, as coal does. But, according to current projections, all the plants operating, under construction, or on order will have ample supplies of domestic fuel well into the next century, and so, these scientists say, the need for Clinch River is not urgent, at least in terms of energy demand in the near future.

To avoid giving the appearance of having lost faith in Clinch River, the Electric Pow7er Research Institute’s office near Chicago is underplaying its work on a follow-on breeder. Starr will say, however, that he thinks the Clinch River breeder project “was just bad management on a national scale.” Given his choice, he would prefer an ambitious research program for gas-cooled breeders, and, like Alvin Weinberg, who prefers molten-salt breeders, Starr supports the Clinch River project mainly because it is ready to be built now. Eugene Wigner thinks the Clinch River plant should be built for the “experience,” but prefers that more work be done on the thorium-to-uranium breeders that he has advocated since the war, because they would concentrate about one tenth as much fissionable material in one place. Hans Bethe thinks that a different design of breeder should be pursued. Henry DeWolf Smyth, formerly the chairman of the Princeton physics department, who wrote the official chronicle of the Manhattan Project, thinks that “anything that’s been sitting around, fought over, and redesigned and redesigned” invites safety complications with each change. Smyth says, “I think you better just pick a new site and start over, but I guess that’s too radical for Congress.” Even Glenn Seaborg is beginning to have second thoughts. “There’s a feeling so much time has passed that the Clinch River breeder is obsolete, and that a newer, more modern approach should be launched,” he says. “I think it may be coming to that point.”

A number of outspoken advocates of the Clinch River breeder can be found in the scientific and technical communities. For example, Manson Benedict, a veteran of the Manhattan Project who is now an emeritus professor of nuclear engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, believes that the LMFBR “is the best prospect the United States has for nuclear-power generation after our limited resources of low-cost natural uranium are used up.” He says that the proposed reactor “is the next logical step in the series of progressively larger breeder reactors that have been built in the United States.” From a practical point of view, he says, the completed parts, the money spent so far, and the work of “a generation of engineers trained to design and build this plant and put it into operation” would all be “irretrievably lost if the Clinch River plant is not built.”

Benedict and others also point to the nation’s stockpile of 250,000 to 300,000 metric tons of U-238. The U-238 has accumulated over the years as a by-product of U-235’s extraction from uranium ore, to make bombs and to fuel light-water power reactors and submarines. If all of the stockpiled U-238 were placed in breeders and converted, it would yield more than 200,000 metric tons of Pu-239. The plutonium could be used by breeders and conventional reactors as fuel to generate about 700 times the electricity made in the United States last year, according to an analyst at Oak Ridge.

The scientists who favor Clinch River are joined in their advocacy by the Committee on Jobs, Environment and Technology, a private organization founded last fall to mobilize support for Clinch River in the midst of fierce congressional opposition. With a full-page ad in a number of newspapers, the committee went on the attack. The ad said, “We don’t usually agree . . . but on Clinch River we do,” and listed eighteen labor unions, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Chamber of Commerce of the United States, the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, the National Conference of Black Mayors, and the National Association of Manufacturers as new and unlikely allies. Less conspicuous in the ad were the names of the breeder’s traditional supporters—among them the American Nuclear Energy Council (the industry’s lobby), the American Nuclear Society, the Atomic Industrial Forum, Inc., and the Edison Electric Institute. The ad called the Clinch River breeder “the result of a 20vear alliance between the federal government and private industry, and said that the project “represents the spirit of innovative research and development that has characterized U.S. history at its best.

IT IS QUITE POSSIBLE THAT THE HISTORY OF CLINCH River will not go beyond reams of paper and tons of cleared earth. Last December, the House, aroused by the prospect of further cuts in federal social programs, voted to eliminate appropriations for the plant from the fiscal 1983 budget—the first time Clinch River had lost in a fullHouse vote. The Senate, just before its adjournment, agreed by a margin of only one vote to continue the appropriations.

A House-Senate conference committee, which met to come up with a budget resolution that would continue federal spending in lieu of agreement on a formal federal budget, compromised: $14 million was cut from the Senate’s appropriation, leaving a balance of $181 million. As part of the deal, the Department of Energy must try to find ways to cut costs and raise more money, either from the utilities or, failing that, perhaps by issuing federally guaranteed bonds; its report is due this spring. In his proposed budget for the 1984 fiscal year, Reagan has asked Congress for $270 million.

Attention now turns to the committees of the new Congress which must authorize further spending in the 1984 budget before any specific amounts can be appropriated. As of this writing, a subcommittee of the House Science and Technology Committee is likely to take the first vote. Its chairman, Representative Marilyn Bouquard, a Democrat whose district includes Oak Ridge, favors Clinch River and expects a tough fight. In the Senate, the threat to Clinch River is more subtle, for it comes also from the nuclear community itself, and involves maneuvering by the federal laboratories to protect their respective roles in the development of breeders. No votes are likely in the Senate until after the full House acts; then the Energy and Natural Resources Committee must decide whether to report a bill authorizing funds to the Senate. The committee’s chairman, James McClure, a Republican from Idaho, believes that regardless of what happens to the Clinch River project, a pool-type reactor, known around the Senate as “the Snake River breeder,” should be built in his home state. McClure is in an uncomfortable position, however. As a member of the Republican leadership, he is obliged to support Baker’s interests. Publicly and with his votes, he has, but he is said to be watching for an opportunity to help Idaho without hurting Tennessee.

One body that Baker can’t influence is the Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards (ACRS), which has remained intact through all the reorganizations of the AEC. The committee’s verdict on the dangers of the Fermi site provoked a political firestorm in 1956, and a negative ruling on the Clinch River plant would do the same. Significantly, the committee is having some real trouble making its decision, which might come later this year.

First, the ACRS is concerned about the breeder’s worst safety problem: the “hypothetical core-disruptive accident.” The last time the committee considered this risk, in 1976, it pointed out that most of the safety analyses of breeders are based on computer codes rather than actual tests, and that these codes “are at best semi-quantitative once fuel melting begins.” The predictions by safety analysts about what might actually happen after breeder fuel melts proceed “primarily by plausibility arguments,” the committee reported. It concluded that because sodium boiling could speed up the chain reaction in a core that contains “several critical masses” of plutonium, it was impossible “to establish with certainty that a severe excursion could not take place.”

Second, the ACRS can’t say definitely that the proposed breeder would be safe at the Clinch River site. All it had concluded by last July was that a conventional light-water reactor, of the type in operation around the country, probably would be. “The applicant is going at his own risk by preparing the site for construction, a committee member said during recent hearings. “There is going to be a hole in the ground, all right, but there is not going to be a [Clinch River breeder] sitting there before we have come through with some further words on the matter. ”

The committee’s words will be academic without Congress’s approval of money to build the breeder. Difficult questions regarding the breeder’s safety and its financial and technical warrants seem only to confound the congressmen who are undecided, and to reach them, boosters of the breeder are emphasizing emotions. Octave DuTemple, the executive director of the American Nuclear Society, says, “You can make all the technical arguments you want, but when you’re in a political system you’ve got to really grab them, see? And I think one of the best arguments to grab them is simply patriotism and waving the flag and American supremacy in technology and the need for energy in the future.

That, after all, was what President Nixon seemed to have in mind when, in 1971, he declared the goal of completing the fourth breeder by 1980. His support was not purely patriotic, however. After announcing the project’s high priority in the White House press room, he walked back to the Oval Office with Seaborg, and on the way, he made his interest in the breeder perfectly clear: “I want it built in California,” he said. A few months later, Nixon announced at Hanford that he would authorize a second breeder demonstration plant. But by October 10, 1973, with his attention consumed chiefly by the growing Watergate scandal, Nixon proposed “leapfrogging” the breeder in favor of fusion, a remark overshadowed that day by Vice President Agnew’s resignation.

ACCORDING TO EDWARD TELLER, THE BREEDER “was started by famous people who made the atomic bomb. And once you get [an idea like this] started, you cannot stop it. There are vested interests. Not only the vested interests of industry but the vested interests of administrators and politicians who fought for it. And the vested interests of scientists who put their whole lives into it. And they get indignant if you propose an alternative, yet alternatives are there, and we should discuss them.”

Fusion—an altogether different nuclear technology—is one of several alternatives to the Clinch River design. Others include a fundamentally different arrangement for a liquid-metal fast breeder, a different fuel cycle, and exploitation of natural, renewable energy sources.

The different arrangement of the liquid-metal fast breeder is the pool design, which Walter Zinn invented for EBR-2 and which the French and the Soviets later adopted. The pool replaces the loops of pipe that were conceived to make reactors suitable for submarines and that became the basis for the design of the EBR-1, Fermi, and Clinch River plants. A study done in 1976 at EPRI by the architecture and engineering firm Burns and Roe, Inc., the designer of Clinch River, concluded that the pool configuration would be easier to build, cheaper to build and run, and safer, in most respects, than the loop, because it is simpler. By 1976, however, Clinch River’s loops had been approved. Experts disagree about whether the pool or the loop is inherently safer. Teller, who has criticized all breeders as unsafe for years, dismissed the controversy, at a conference on energy technology in 1981, this way: “Pool, loop—loop, pool. It’s the same word spelled backwards.”

The search for a breeder fuel cycle that would make weapons proliferation more difficult has persisted since the 1940s. The thorium cycle favored by Wigner and Weinberg attracted new attention during the Carter Administration, because the fuel it breeds (U-233) can be made more resistant than Pu-239 to application in a nuclear weapon. (U233 can be treated to become extremely difficult to separate and purify to achieve bomb-grade quality.) Moreover, the thorium cycle avoids most of the toxic and explosive risks associated with the handling of plutonium. The molten-salt-cooled breeder represents one approach to the thorium cycle, but its highly corrosive fuel is a disadvantage. Another approach, the light-water breeder, was supported by Carter when he tried to abolish Clinch River. Admiral Rickover had converted a government-owned nuclear-power plant, which previously had been run by a private utility, at Shippingport, Pennsylvania, into a light-water breeder, in order to study such a reactor’s potential. Carter threw the switch that started up the plant, in 1977. It was shut down last year, and until the core is examined, scientists will not know whether or not the plant bred new fuel. Some analysts believe that the decreased coolant required for a light-water reactor to breed at all is a safety hazard.

A gas-cooled, fast-neutron reactor is thought to be an adaptable breeder of uranium or plutonium; its coolant, helium, has even less moderating effect than sodium on the neutrons passing through it. According to some analysts, however, a loss-of-coolant accident would pose a serious problem, because once the helium was gone, there would be no medium to absorb the core’s intense heat, and fuel melting would occur immediately. Thus, although gascooled, slow-neutron reactors moderated by graphite have been built in Pennsylvania and Colorado, no one has ventured to build an unmoderated gas-cooled breeder.

The two alternative nuclear technologies being studied are based on fusion—the power of the sun—in which energy is released when very light atoms are squeezed together, rather than when very heavy atoms are split apart, as in fission. A fusion reactor would accomplish this by trapping the atoms in a chamber, surrounding the chamber with magnets, and directing the magnetic fields inside to contain the atoms so that they could be made hot enough to fuse. The technology is at an early stage of development, largely because of its extreme physical demands. In order for a fusion reactor to work, the chamber’s temperature must be one hundred million degrees Centigrade (several times hotter than the center of the sun) while the temperature of the magnets, inches away, must approach absolute zero (the coldest that physical materials can become).

Advocates of fusion want work on the breeder halted and the funds diverted to their cause. They say that if the breeder is needed after the turn of the century, and if fusion doesn’t appear more promising by then, there would still be plenty of time to revive an aggressive breeder program. Advocates of breeders, however, warn that such a strategy could be dangerous. Donald Trauger, the associate director of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, says, “The last thing you want is a crash program for breeders. These plants have to be scaled up gradually, to avoid safety and technical problems.”

In the scientific community, fusion must compete with a hybrid scheme that involves both breeder and fusion technologies. A fission-fusion reactor would heat light atoms, without having to sustain the reaction, to release stray neutrons; the neutrons would then be absorbed in a blanket that would be transmuted into plutonium in one scheme, or uranium in another. Of course, the plutonium version would keep alive the threat of weapons proliferation. That threat would be diminished if the uranium version were pursued. The supporters of fission-fusion technology, Bethe and Teller among them, assert that either version would be environmentally cleaner and safer to run than other breeders. According to Bethe, “Seaborg has said the breeder is an alchemist’s dream. It is, of course. But maybe the fission-fusion hybrid is an even better dream.” Like the breeder in the 1940s and 1950s, however, fusion technology is an entrancing prospect based on lovely forecasts rather than practical experience.

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The ultimate nuclear-energy source is the sun, whose radiation is being studied as a source of both heat and electricity. So far, solar power is nowhere near providing electricity on a large scale, but other domestic and commercial uses—space heating, water heating, and low outputs of electricity—are already practical. Bernard Feld, who was Leo Szilard’s research assistant on the Manhattan Project and is now a nuclear physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the editor in chief of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, has done theoretical work on solar energy. He says, “If, like me, you really feel that fission power is an interim solution to a difficult problem, and that the long-term solution we should be looking for is something involving solar energy, then the breeder looks rather superfluous.”

IF PROSPECTS FOR THE BREEDER SEEM BLEAK IN THE United States, they are only a little brighter overseas—despite the exhortations by the nuclear industry here that Americans are losing the race for an exportable commercial plant.

Publicists at the Atomic Industrial Forum enjoy leading press tours to France and Russia to show American journalists how they think nuclear programs ought to be run. In doing so, they unwittingly confirm the judgment made in the late 1940s by James Newman, who helped to draft the Atomic Energy Act of 1946, that if nuclear power is to succeed, it must be as an “island of socialism,” distant from commercial notions of profit and loss. The tours also confirm that even with the full resources of the state behind them, developers of nuclear power—and especially of the breeder—can’t avoid conflict.

France, the undisputed front-runner in the race for a commercial breeder, took first place by copying the Americans. Rapsodie, a 40-megawatt loop-type breeder, began operating in 1967. Phénix, a 250-megawatt pool-type breeder, began operating in 1973. Superphenix, a 1,200megawatt pool-type breeder, is expected to run in 1984. “Translated in American terms, Rapsodie is our EBR-2, Phénix is our Clinch River, and Superphénix is our ‘large developmental plant [LDP],’ to be followed by the commercial plants,” Bertrand Barré, the nuclear attaché in the French Embassy in Washington, says. He is quick to point out the differences, however: Rapsodie had no steam generator and therefore never produced electricity. Furthermore, a sodium leak restricted its power from 1978 until the reactor was shut down last year, to avoid costly repairs. Phénix suffered a string of sodium leaks, but eventually did breed about 15 percent more fuel than it consumed, according to the latest estimates. When the Superphénix begins operation, it will produce about as much electricity as an American light-water plant does, but at a much higher cost. Barré’s reference to the LDP is to a sequel to Clinch River that was discussed in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s and then deferred; now the closest American cousin of Superphénix is the breeder that EPRI is planning near Chicago.

Having one state utility and one state nuclear agency has made it easier for the French to develop their own breeders, but the process has not been as trouble-free as the Atomic Industrial Forum’s press officers imply. The public is not allowed a significant voice in the licensing procedure, and as a result its actions have been violent: a demonstration against Superphénix in 1977 left one person dead and dozens injured; someone shot a bazooka at the plant last year, causing $17 million in damages.

One reason the French are so admired by breeder advocates in the United States is that they have “closed the fuel cycle”—recovered plutonium and recycled it as fuel. This feature has especially impressed Weinberg, because it is another step toward the “energy autarky” that he hopes breeders will create. Weinberg’s enthusiasm is undercut, however, by the fact that the French, having shown what they could do with plutonium as fuel, decided last year that the Superphénix would be more useful making plutonium for bombs. (The government wants to develop a nuclear tactical force, and to replace a military-production reactor that is about to be shut down.) The state utility’s weekly review said last spring, “A reinforcement is needed, and it is ensured (after Phénix) by Superphénix, which will produce . . . enough plutonium ... to make about 60 atomic bombs each year.”

In the Soviet Union, where questions from visiting journalists about plutonium use are never answered, the breeder program has stalled after an ambitious start. In 1973 and 1974, the BN-350 loop-type breeder, which is about the size of the proposed Clinch River plant, suffered sodium fires and explosions so serious that an American satellite is said to have detected them. The BN-350 was built on the Caspian Sea and was designed to be a desalinization plant, too, but this function has also proved impractical. The BN-600 pool-type breeder, which is half the size of American commercial nuclear plants, has run well since 1981: it is the reactor that heated water for Walker Cisler’s bath. The Russians are scaling back their plans, however. A Soviet review of the country’s program in 1979 noted “greater than expected” problems with fast breeders, especially in handling sodium. It said, “As a result, the date [first thought to be in the early 1980s] at which powerful commercial fast-neutron reactors would be developed has been moved back to the end of the century,” and power production may occur “only in the next century.” As in the United States, reprocessing has been postponed because “demand for nuclear fuel has decreased, and re-use of plutonium in light-water reactors is “difficult to justify.”

The Japanese began to operate a small test breeder in 1977, and they want to complete a Clinch River-sized demonstration breeder, the Monju, by the late 1980s. (Monju Bodhisattva, the left-hand attendant to Sakyamuni Buddha, symbolizes wisdom. The name was chosen to emphasize that the breeder program should “harmonize spirituality and science” in order to succeed.) A 1,000-megawatt breeder is also being planned there now; although the first two breeders used the loop strategy, this proposed commercial-sized plant may employ a pool, because of its superior resistance to earthquakes and the successful experience with pools of the French and the Russians. Some analysts fear that the Japanese could use a breeder to develop nuclear weapons, although it is official policy that Japan does not want a nuclear arsenal.

Britain and Germany are also interested in breeders. Britain began running a 15-megawatt breeder on the northern tip of Scotland in 1959, and started up a 250megawatt breeder in 1974; it “closed the fuel cycle” by reusing some its own fuel last year. Sometime this year, Britain may decide whether or not to build a demonstration-sized breeder of 1,320 megawatts.

Both Britain and Germany hesitate to build new breeders at the moment, because the utilities are unwilling to take on the costs until the plants are known to be reliable, and the governments are unwilling to run the plants themselves. The German parliament may decide soon whether or not to continue funding Germany’s second breeder, a 300-megawatt plant at Kalkar, even though it is nearly completed. The utilities have balked at paying unexpected costs incurred during construction. As Otto Keck, who has written a book on German breeders, points out, “government laboratories and agencies are not well equipped for economic assessments.”

Keck’s description of Germany’s dilemma sounds in many ways like an analysis of Clinch River’s politics. He says, “Industrial firms do not necessarily communicate the full scope of their assessments to policy-makers. They do not wish to exclude themselves from a governmentfinanced program by questioning the government’s economic justification. Their interest is to be part of the program in order to know what is going on and to get some of the business involved.”

The Clinch River plant represents only about one third of a $600-miHion-a-year expenditure, and if it is scrapped, an expensive U.S. breeder program will still exist. The EBR-2 and the FFTF will still be testing breeder fuel in northwestern deserts. Other federal programs will still be concentrating on the sodium pumps and steam generators that have confounded the builders of every breeder. But all this, as Floyd Culler, of EPRI, has said, will lack a “focal point.” Some other machine is sure to be proposed to prove that so much money and effort have not been wasted. Besides EPRI’s plans for a large breeder, $30 million has been committed by the government in the past two years to fund a study of what the next breeder—the so-called “LDP”—should be.

Given the fragility of geologists’ estimates of reserves, no one can say with any authority precisely when in the distant future coal, oil, and uranium might run out, but the ultimate need for some alternative energy source must be reckoned in anticipation of their depletion. For now, analysts in the government and the nuclear industry are taking advantage of the hiatus brought about by the absence of any new orders for nuclear plants to reassess the future of nuclear power in meeting that need. A robust revival of the light-water nuclear-power industry must occur in order for breeders to have a role.

Whether breeders are needed or not, a growing number of scientists seem prepared to forget about them. Teller says, “For thirty-seven years, most of the nuclear physicists considered the breeder as the front-runner, as the wave of the future. They put not only the most money on it but also the most ingenuity. They solved a few problems, yet we don’t have an economical breeder. The French seem now to have less confidence in their economic success than they used to have. And I like to say, perhaps a little maliciously, that the Superphénix will be a big success—just as big as the Concorde.”

Teller says that “the long time, the big effort, and the lack of obvious success are clear points that argue stop and look.” Some of those present at the breeder’s creation have already stopped and looked, and what they have seen is a dream turned to obsession. They have turned to new dreams—perhaps not as grand as the breeder and its “plutonium economy,” but probably not as dreadful, either.

Until three or four years ago, the breeder seemed inevitable, but, for all its promise, it has become instead a costly disappointment. George Weil, an early colleague of Enrico Fermi’s who was at the controls when the Manhattan Project scientists created the first chain reaction, and who, for a time, supervised reactor development at the AEC, thinks the breeder has lived up to the dreams of the ancient alchemists, after all. Weil says, “So far, it’s only been good for one thing—breeding money.”