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The Rise and Demise of the Clinch River Breeder Reactor

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists publishes a new piece, "The Rise and Demise of the Clinch River Breeder Reactor," written by NPEC Executive Director, Henry Sokolski.

Feb 06, 2019
AUTHOR: Henry Sokolski

The Rise and Demise of the Clinch River Breeder Reactor

By Henry Sokolski

This year marks the 36th anniversary of the termination of the Clinch River Breeder Reactor Project, a federally funded commercial demonstration effort. In the very early 1980s, it was the largest public-works project in the United States. Japan, South Korea, China, France, Russia, and the United States are now all again considering building similar plants. For each, how and why Clinch River was launched and killed is a history that speaks to their nuclear future. This history involves more than cost benefit analysis. For the public and political leadership, facts and arguments rarely close an initial sale of a large government-funded, high-tech commercialization program. Nor do they generally goad officials to abandon such projects. Such acts are fundamentally political: Fears and hopes drive them. Certainly, to understand why the US government launched and subsequently killed Clinch River requires knowledge not just of what the public and its political leadership thought, but also of how they felt.

Unwarranted fears of uranium’s scarcity fueled interest in fast-breeder reactors. The first effort to develop a large commercial-breeder-reactor demonstration in the US was rationalized by arguing that it would make money or, at least, break even. But what launched the Clinch River project had far less to do with any commercial calculation than it did with a strong ideological attachment to a most interesting technical possibility. After the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, US nuclear scientists were eager to put their discovery of nuclear energy to some beneficial purpose. The most exciting prospect was nuclear power. Unfortunately, in 1945, uranium 235, a fissile uranium isotope that can readily sustain a chain reaction, was believed to be so scarce, it was assumed there was not enough of it to produce nuclear electricity on a large scale. Scientists saw the answer in fast-breeder reactors.

The cores of these reactors would be surrounded with a blanket of abundant, natural uranium 238. The reactor’s fast neutrons, in turn, would transmute the fertile uranium 238 blanket into fissile plutonium 239, which could be chemically stripped out from the spent-breeder-reactor fuel and recycled again, effectively increasing the fissile potential of existing uranium resources many-fold.

The fast-breeder reactors became a cause celeb, a killer app. The Atomic Energy Commission publicly promoted their commercialization with confident, cartoonish optimism. In one publication, the commission asked the upbeat question: “Johnny had three truckloads of plutonium. He used three of them to power New York for a year. How much plutonium did Johnny have left?” The answer: “Four truckloads.”

Unfortunately, this pitch glossed over two stubborn facts. First, because plutonium is so much more toxic and difficult to handle than uranium, it is many times more expensive to use as a reactor fuel than using fresh uranium. Second, because plutonium fast-breeder reactors use liquid metal coolants, such as liquid sodium, operating them safely is far more challenging and expensive than conventional reactors. When private industry tried in the early 1960s to operate its own commercial-sized fast-breeder, Fermi I, the benefits were negative. Barely three years after Fermi 1 came online, a partial fuel meltdown in 1966 brought it down. It eventually resumed operations before being officially shut down in 1972.

These facts, however, are rarely emphasized. Those backing breeders—whether it be in 1945, 1975, or today—focus not on reliability and economics, but rather that we are about to run out of affordable uranium. For the moment, of course, we are not. Uranium is plentiful and cheap as is enriching it. This helps explain why the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Japan, and the United States, no longer operate any commercial-sized fast-breeder reactors and are in no immediate rush to build new ones.

Supporters of fast-breeder reactors, however, insist this will change, arguing that in 25, 50, 100, or—just to be absolutely safe—4,000 years, the world will eventually run out of cheap uranium and that building breeders now is the only way to be ready for this future. Private banks, of course, have a different take: No banks have financed the construction of commercial-sized fast-breeder reactors or the spent-fuel recycling plants they require. The only institutions that have funded such projects since Fermi I are governments.

For Nixon, securing a political win for a big-science project was more important than sound economics. Washington, of course, has a long history of underwriting large, risky energy-commercialization projects. The government has backed, for instance, ethanol, synthetic fuels, solar, wind power, and so-called “clean coal.” Industrial backers, meanwhile, are all too eager to secure government support for these projects. With enough subsidies, these efforts may become politically impossible to kill (think jobs and payoffs), at which point, officials can be forced to maintain or expand these projects even if they continue to lose money.

Early on, this seems to have been the thinking behind Clinch River. When the Atomic Energy Commission argued the case for building a breeder reactor in the late 1960s and early 1970s, it projected 1,000 reactors would be on line in the United States by the year 2000 (the real number turned out to be 103) and that the United States would soon run out of affordable uranium. Also, by the mid-1960s, the commission needed a new, massive project to justify its continued existence. Its key mission, to enrich uranium for bombs and reactors, had been completed and was overbuilt. The commission was running out of construction and research projects commensurate with its large budget. A breeder-reactor-commercialization program with all the reprocessing, fuel testing, and fuel fabrication plants that would go with it, seemed a worthy successor.

But the most powerful political supporter of Clinch River, then-President Richard Nixon, focused on a different point. Nixon saw the project less as a commercial proposition than as a way to demonstrate his power to secure more votes by providing government-funded jobs while at the same time affirming his commitment to big-science, engineering, and progress.

In striving to claim the mantle of progress, Nixon clashed with Congress over what he saw as a prime chance to commercialize government technology by developing a supersonic transport plane. The problem was that the plane, which used technology the Air Force already employed, was so fuel inefficient, trying to sell seats on a “commercial” version of it was a surefire way to go broke. Congress understood this and shot down the proposed federal funding for the supersonic transport plane in May of 1971.

Backing Clinch River, then, was a practical opportunity for Nixon to regain lost political ground. The breeder project was projected only to cost $400 million. The electric utilities said they were willing to pay for more than half of the bill ($257 million—far more buy-in than the airlines were willing to invest in the supersonic transport plane). Also, unlike the the supersonic transport plane, Clinch River enjoyed strong congressional backing. Whatever the supersonic transport plane’s fate, then, the White House saw federal funding of Clinch River as a way to demonstrate that it still could push large, politically-useful high-tech commercialization projects through Congress.

Some accounts miss this point. One recent, popular historical account argues that in 1970, Nixon supported Clinch River in order to win the support of Chet Holifield, a powerful Democrat in the House of Representatives. Holifield supported breeder-reactor development, but objected to Nixon’s push to roll the Atomic Energy Commission into a broader agency. Nixon’s support for Clinch River, by this account, was a horse trade.

This sounds like vintage Nixon, seeking tactical political influence and advantage. But, in fact, there was no horse trade. This was made clear by a former senior official who had recommended the creation of this proposed, energy-focused agency. Nixon privately asked for Holifield’s blessing for the proposed reorganization, David Freeman, a Nixon advisor and former director of the Tennessee Valley Authority, noted. Holifield refused because it would reduce the importance of the Atomic Energy Commission. Nixon immediately dropped the idea, according to Freeman. Yet, the president continued to push for funding of Clinch River and breeder reactors. In his final energy message to Congress in 1973, Nixon praised development of the liquid metal fast breeder reactor, insisting it was “our highest priority target for nuclear research.”

According to Freeman, the Atomic Energy Commission and the nuclear industry wanted Clinch River funded but there was debate within the White House. In the end, Nixon himself came down in favor of funding, calling a meeting with the commission and the White House’s principals to “decide” the matter. This was just weeks before Congress blew up Nixon’s dreams of a supersonic transport plane.

Freeman, who participated in the meeting, said Nixon displayed his dry wit. At one point, the president turned to Commission Chairman Dr. Glenn Seaborg, the most respected proponent of the breeder, and asked, “Do we have another [supersonic transport plane] here?”

“Certainly not, Mr. President,” Seaborg replied.

“All right, but we are going to go ahead with Clinch River anyway,” Nixon smirked, causing the pro-breeder delegation to squirm.

Freeman believed Nixon knew Clinch River was probably as commercially questionable as the supersonic transport plane, but, for his own reasons, he would still commit federal funds to launch it. The president touted the project repeatedly, describing it as a “flagship,” a high-tech project, and a scientific symbol of what the United States (and he) could do. Two weeks after Congress killed the supersonic transport plane, Nixon issued a special message to Congress on energy in which he argued at length for funding to begin construction of Clinch River. The president extolled the economic benefits of the project and said it would advance the cause of nuclear safety.

The beginning of the end: The Heritage Foundation turns against Clinch River. In 1981, I was halfway through a fellowship at the conservative Hoover Institution when the staff there assigned me to work at the newly minted Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, DC, and one of the most significant promoters of Clinch River. I had, at that point, come out strongly against the project.

“You’ll just have to change their minds,” a mentor at the Hoover Institution told me.

Instead of trying to persuade the foundation to change its position on Clinch River, initially, I simply offered my views outside the organization as if they were the foundation’s. This worked for awhile. I testified before several congressional committees and made the case against further federal funding of a number of commercial-nuclear demonstration programs, including Clinch River.

Then, I was called to the carpet. Phil Truluck, the foundation’s research director, approached me after hours. He and I were already friendly, and he wanted to talk. This call, however, was not social.

Truluck said he had heard about my testimony against Clinch River and that it had upset Heritage’s donors. The reason he wanted to talk, he explained, was to “learn why you are arguing what you are.” I decided not to lay out my argument against Clinch River. Instead, I asked Truluck to answer two questions for me.

One of Heritage’s nemeses was Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker, a moderate Republican who had repeatedly thwarted the foundation’s policy objectives. I asked Truluck if he liked Baker.

“Like Howard Baker?” he said. “We hate Howard Baker.”

“OK. If you are so opposed to Howard Baker,” I asked, “why is Heritage supporting the construction of the most expensive federal public-works project ever in Baker’s home state?”

Truluck’s jaw went slack.

“I didn’t know that,” Truluck said.

“So what are your arguments against the project?” he asked. “I’d like to hear them.”

Not more than two days later, he directed the foundation’s energy director to have me write a piece under the Heritage banner condemning the project. To my astonishment, by playing on the foundation’s disdain for Baker, I actually had persuaded Heritage to reverse its position. This was different. Up until 1981, Clinch River’s backers had repeatedly log-rolled a handful of Democrats and got “pro-nuke” conservatives to sustain funding. Members who opposed the project were almost entirely anti-Nixon environmental Democrats. As a result, Clinch River funding always just squeaked through, mostly along party lines. Now, with Heritage, a pro-breeder, conservative organization, breaking ranks, these political barricades were about to burst open.

Up until this point, almost all conservatives were reflexively pro-nuclear and pro-Clinch River. When Heritage reversed its position and carried other conservative organizations, like Paul Weyrich’s Free Congress Foundation, it tipped more than a few cows. By the time the White House got wise to what was happening, it was too late. Secretary of Energy Donald Hodel personally called the president of Heritage, Edwin Feulner, to try to get him to reverse his position. Feulner refused.

For the first time, the right chose to work with the environmental left, drawing even more news coverage. More than once, journalists and associates of mine described the political turn conservatives made against Clinch River as being a case, not of “a dog biting a man,” but of “a man biting a dog.” It was something that was truly unexpected and newsworthy—so stunning that it got those wavering on the project to rethink their position.

Ideological furor rarely beats the truth. Not long into my effort to terminate Clinch River, I was hired by Senator Gordon Humphrey, a New Hampshire Republican. The conservative Humphrey had gained office by only a narrow margin. Seeking to gain support from the vibrant environmental community in New Hampshire, Humphrey took up the battle to terminate Clinch River.

I quickly appreciated just how tightly the political battle lines were drawn over Clinch River. Trying to get additional votes and supporters initially seemed impossible. I was confident that I had the arguments and facts on my side, especially after learning that the new cost projections for the reactor project were running 20 times higher than originally estimated. I was worried that even that might not matter.

Baker had sewn up political support for his project in the Senate. A majority of members in the House, meanwhile, had received public-works funding for their districts in exchange for their votes for the breeder. Those who had not feared that if they stopped supporting Clinch River, they might see their favorite local public-works project cut.

Humphrey lacked political clout to secure other senators’ votes against Clinch River. Reflecting upon all this, it sunk in: Defeating the project could be impossible, no matter how good the arguments against it might be.

Fortunately, it was about this time that I received a call from Warren Chernock, someone I did not know and who did not know me. He was executive vice president of Combustion Engineering, a firm that designed and fabricated what many nuclear engineers regarded as the world’s best light-water reactor.

He asked if I would see him. I assumed he wanted to pitch me about the benefits of completing Clinch River. Figuring it would be useful to know my opponents up close, I agreed. What came next was a total surprise. Chernock said he wanted to help me in any way he could behind the scenes to defeat Clinch River.

“I don’t understand,” I said. “You’ve engineered some of the best reactors there are.

“The nuclear industry has been pushing Clinch River as their ‘flagship’ commercial project to lock down nuclear power everywhere. Why in the world would you want to help me?”

Chernock explained, “When I first got into nuclear engineering in the early 1950s, my goal was to build a reactor good enough to compete economically with coal-fired plants.

“We haven’t achieved that yet, but if Clinch River ever gets built, it and all the other plants it requires will cost so much Washington won’t be able to cover their costs without creating massive tax and ratepayer-paid subsidies that will effectively nationalize the US nuclear power industry.

“At that point, it will be impossible to know what the true cost of my or any others’ reactors or power sources might be.”

He, for one, was against that.

His comments put me back on track. Chernock confirmed what I and others had been arguing all along: You could favor nuclear power and yet oppose building a commercial-sized breeder reactor. In fact, Chernock’s point was even bolder—that if you pushed Clinch River, the project’s high costs would only increase the cost of conventional nuclear power and reduce public support for nuclear power generally.

Chernock routinely touched base and gave me helpful technical tips. Not long thereafter, senior staff working in the White House Office of Management and Budget forwarded me more information and guidance as well. Gradually, the substantive case against further federal funding for the project grew and began to bleed it of support drip by drip.

Unbeknownst to me, there was yet another aspect of the Clinch River project that cost it political support—safety. Early in 1983, I met with a senior staffer who worked for Sen. Pete Domenici, one of the project’s most strident supporters. In 1982, the staffer explained, the Energy Department videotaped safety tests it had conducted of how molten sodium might react once it came in contact with the reactor’s concrete containment structure. Concrete contains water crystals. Molten sodium reacts explosively when it comes in contact with oxygen, including oxygen contained in water. What the test demonstrated and the video showed was concrete exploding when it came in contact with liquid sodium.

This set off waves of worry at the department. The only way to address this hazard was to shield Clinch River’s entire containment structure with a massive stainless steel liner, a work-around that would add hundreds of millions of dollars to the project’s already spiraling costs. Energy Department officials knew that they had to share the film with the project’s key Capitol Hill supporters, if only to forewarn them that the department would need more money to complete the project.

Department officials quietly scheduled a meeting on the Hill and offered a showing of the video for a select number of pro-Clinch River congressional staffers. The reaction was negative. Domenici’s staffer, who still works in the nuclear industry and wished to remain anonymous, told me that when the audience got to the scenes of the concrete exploding in the video, the aides released a wave of dismay (as in exclamations of “Holy crap!”). It is unclear how much support the video cost the project, but it could not have been more untimely, coming just before the Senate vote and after years of repeated Energy Department declarations that the project had addressed all safety issues. Word of the exploding concrete video, the Domenici staffer told me, leaked to other key members supporting the project. Several changed their vote.

Just weeks before the final vote, the Congressional Budget Office released its financial assessment of the Energy Department’s last ditch effort to use loan guarantees to fund the project. Even under the most conservative assumptions, the budget analysts determined that the loan guarantees would only increase the project’s final costs. This helped push the project over a political cliff. The final Senate vote: 56 against, 40 for. All of the 16 deciding votes came from former Clinch River supporters.

No commercial prospects? Militarize. Nixon backed numerous science commercialization projects like Clinch River, including the Space Shuttle Program and the supersonic transport plane.

The planes and shuttles were supposed to make money, or, at least, break even by supplying commercial benefits that the airline industry and satellite firms would pay for. These transactions were supposed to cover most or all of the up-front federal costs necessary to build these projects. Congress rejected the supersonic transport plane on economic grounds. While the Space Shuttle Program won congressional support, the envisioned satellite contracts never materialized. The program became heavily dependent on military contracts. Finally, our national security depended upon it.

Although Clinch River never was completed, as its costs spiraled, it too attracted military attention. Leonard Weiss, the former staff director of the Nuclear Proliferation Senate Governmental Affairs Subcommittee, which no longer exists, noted this development.

Clinch River, Weiss observed, needed at least five tons of plutonium for its first fuel loading. At the time, the United States only had eight tons of separated plutonium available. If Clinch River needed five or more of those eight tons, Weiss surmised, the remaining three tons could not hope to meet the military’s new, higher military plutonium requirements that the Reagan Administration had just set to outpace the Soviets. Also, the three tons remaining would be fuel-grade plutonium, not weapons-grade plutonium. As a result, more weapons-grade plutonium would have to be produced to blend with the remaining three tons to turn it into weapons-grade plutonium. Weiss reasoned that the United States could only produce enough weapons-grade plutonium in one of three ways: It could ask a foreign ally, revamp old military production lines, or use commercial reactors.

Just months before Congress killed Clinch River, Rep. John Dingell, then the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Oversight and Investigations subcommittee, asked the Government Accountability Office to explain just how the Energy Department intended to deal with this problem. The department’s answer: It believed it needed 6.2 tons of plutonium to start up Clinch River and run it for the first five years. Then the plant’s operation would be private industry’s responsibility. All or most of this 6.2 tons would come from the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile and cost between $143 million and $1.2 billion to acquire. Department officials told the accountability office, however, that these costs would be “repaid” in the out years by having Clinch River “return” an equivalent amount of plutonium to military stockpiles. What the department was proposing was turning Clinch River into a military production reactor.

Fortunately, the project was terminated before this plutonium dilemma had to be addressed. Only three years after the project was killed, the Reagan Administration announced plans to buy an unfinished, commercial light-water reactor from the Washington Power Supply System, a public electric utility, and complete its construction in order to meet the military’s rising demand to produce more military plutonium and tritium.

Glasnost and the winding down of the Cold War, as well as local opposition, killed this idea as well. It is tempting to consider what might have happened had the Cold War continued and Clinch River been fully funded and built. One of the key criticisms environmentalist opponents leveled against the project early on was that any time a ratepayer turned on the lights anywhere near the reactor, he or she would have to worry that they were producing plutonium for weapons. With the Energy Department’s plans to have Clinch River “repay” its planned initial plutonium debt, this was more than wild speculation. In fact, the French used their breeders to make large amounts of weapons-grade plutonium for bombs. India today is building a breeder reactor to do so as well. Had Reagan’s requirement for more weapons-grade plutonium remained in place and Clinch River been built, it is likely the project would also have been used for this military purpose, thereby further locking in continued government support for the project.

The finale. Six months before the Senate voted to terminate Clinch River, the controversy surrounding its funding had gone national, with editorials opposing the project appearing in newspapers in nearly every state. Most Washington insiders, however, remained confident that Baker and pro-Clinch River backers in the nuclear industry and the Energy Department could keep it funded. Even a week before the final vote, the seasoned Washington pundits on The McLaughlin Group, a popular, syndicated television news commentary, predicted that Clinch River’s backers would prevail.

Nobody anticipated how lopsided the Senate vote against the project would be. Yet, one Hill staffer I later spoke with told me there had been signs pointing to defeat. At least once a week, congressional staffers who opposed the project, including me, had our bosses place arguments against funding Clinch River in the Congressional Record. Each time we would make an entry, though, the project’s proponents, without fail, would come back with a counterargument and place it as well.

After two years of commentary combat, I was running out of arguments when James Digby of the RAND Corporation offered a suggestion: Why not graph yearly projections of how much longer the Energy Department estimated it would take to complete Clinch River and what they projected the project’s forward costs would be? Plotting these figures, I produced a graph that proved to be truly embarrassing. Essentially, it didn’t matter when you asked–1971 or 1983—Clinch River was always another seven years and at least another $2.1 billion away from completion. When I posted this information in the Congressional Record, I noticed that for the first time the congressional backers of Clinch River offered no rejoinder. I did not make much of it. The Hill staffer, though, said he had noticed. For him, it was huge.

By mid-1983, media outlets and lampoonists had swung against the project, making it an object of national ridicule. A majority of newspapers taking a stance on the project were running cartoons and editorials lampooning it as a pork barrel pet project of Baker and the Congressional leadership. The Capitol Steps, a Washington political satire troupe, went further. Using the tune of “Old Man River” to mock the project, they sang:

“Old Clinch River, that old Clinch River, it don’t do nothin’, but sure is somethin’. It just keeps rollin’. It just keeps rollin’ along. You ask why hasn’t it met its maker, it’s represented by Howard Baker!”

This burlesque, in the eyes of the Hill staffer, cast a deadly political pall over the project. As he noted, nobody could favor Clinch River without undermining his or her own credibility.

Freeman, the former Tennessee Valley Authority director, validated this point. Toward the end, Baker, a well-known vote counter, realized he no longer had the votes to prevent termination. He asked to meet privately with Freeman, who by this time had the key vote on the Tennessee Valley Authority board. The senator was desperate. Freeman said: “He pleaded for me to have the [Tennessee Valley Authority] ratepayers fund the Clinch River Breeder Reactor’s completion. Baker wouldn’t ask for such a thing if there was any other way to save it. I asked him jokingly if he was really asking me to testify in favor of the Clinch River. After assuring me that this was no joking matter, he recognized that it was my way of saying no to a senator that was a friend and he then said that he respected my decision. And that was the end of the breeder.”

History for the future. Harry Truman once remarked, “The only thing new in the world is the history you don’t know.” With Clinch River, what we now know, we may yet repeat. Fast-reactor commercialization projects and support efforts, such as Argonne National Laboratory’s Small Modular Fast Reactor, the US-South Korean Pyroreprocessing effort, the Energy Department’s Virtual (Fast) Test Reactor, France’s Astrid Fast Reactor Project, the PRISM Reactor, the TerraPower Traveling Wave reactor, India’s thorium breeder, Russia’s BN-1200, China’s Demonstration Fast-Breeder Reactor, continue to capture the attention and support of energy officials in Japan, China, Russia, South Korea, France, the US, and India. None of these countries have yet completely locked in their decisions. How sound their final choices turn out to be, will ultimately speak to these governments’ credibility and legitimacy.

In the case of Clinch River, the decision to launch the program ultimately rested on a cynical set of political calculations alloyed to an ideological faith in fast reactors and the future of the “plutonium economy.” Supporters saw this future clearly. As a nuclear engineer explained to me in 1981 at Los Alamos National Laboratory, the United States technically could build enough breeder reactors to keep the country electrically powered for hundreds of years without using any more oil, coal, or uranium. When I asked him, though, who would pay for this, he simply snapped that only fools let economics get in the way of the future.

This argument suggests that the case for fast reactors is beyond calculation or debate, something mandatory and urgent. That, however, never was the case, nor is it now. Instead, the equitable distribution of goods, which is a key metric of both economic and governmental performance (and ultimately of any government’s legitimacy and viability), has always taken and always must take costs into account. In this regard, we can only hope that remembering how and why Clinch River was launched and killed will help get this accounting right for similar such high-tech commercialization projects now and in the future. 

The Nonproliferation Policy Education Center (NPEC), is a 501 (c)3 nonpartisan, nonprofit, educational organization
founded in 1994 to promote a better understanding of strategic weapons proliferation issues. NPEC educates policymakers, journalists,
and university professors about proliferation threats and possible new policies and measures to meet them.
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