This could be a watershed year for the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory's proposed national cancer treatment center.

The INEL has some $7.5 million to start converting the old Power Burst reactor into a plant capable of curing cancer. But the facility is not allowed to spend the money yet and may be unable to do so in the future.A skeleton crew of 20 reactor operators, health physicists and others are stationed there. Their job is to make sure the reactor, which has not run since 1985, is ready to start up again if needed.

The more ambitious work will just have to wait.

"Right now, we're told to stay in standby and that's where we're at," said Tom McLaugthlin, EG&G Idaho's manager of advance nuclear programs. "We're waiting to be told (to do other work)."

That other work is converting the Power Burst for the Boron Neutron Capture Therapy program. That project--a favorite of Idaho's political leaders, but one that has earned little support from the Department of Energy--could provide a treatment for a now-incurable brain cancer.

It would take three full years to clean up the plant, convert it for medical treatment and start up the reactor, McLaughlin said.

The first big step in conversion is removing piping from the reactor which was used ina loss-of-coolant accident test in the early 1980s.

EG&G figures it has to remove several boxes of the piping, at 5,000 to 6,000 pounds apiece. The pipe would then be stored as low-level waste at the Radioactive Waste Management Complex.

Meanwhile, EG&G would continue designing an underground patient-monitoring room, built onto the reactor. It would also keep designing the tunnel that directs a neutron beam from the reactor core to the patient.

When the neutr4on is aimed at a boron-soaked brain tumor, the beam is upposed to kill the cancer while leaving healthy cells intact.

If all the work progressed this year, at least 25 new employees would be added to the reactor site.

Last year, it appeared the project would begin in 1991. Former Sen. Jim McClure, R-Idaho, added conversion money to the boron Neutron Capture Therapy and got congress to require the Energy Department to do $7.5 million worth of conversion work at Idaho.

Energy Secretary James Watkins has frozen the conversion money and blasted Idaho's delegation for putting it there. The money was attached to budgets at the last minute, with little debate.