Whoops

One can hardly disagree with the observation of a congressional aide that the US government has ''a gigantic problem here.'' The problem is the possible default any day now of the Washington Public Power Supply System (WPPSS). WPPSS is a utility put together to build five nuclear power projects in Washington State. It is also the largest single issuer of tax-exempt bonds in the nation. If WPPSS - dubbed ''Whoops'' - defaults, the ramifications would be far-reaching , for many of the bonds are backed by the federal government as well as 88 utilities in the Pacific Northwest.

Also involved in the legal tangle are scores of banks, industrial customers, law offices, local and state governments - and Secretary of Energy Donald Hodel, who as former head of the federal Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) helped get WPPSS under way.

No matter from what angle one looks at WPPSS, the conclusion seems inescapable that the utility made enormous policy misjudgments. It also illustrates the danger of seeking solutions to national problems through crash construction projects. Because Northwest officials expected a sharp increase in future demand for electricity, they promoted the building of the five nuclear power plants. The project, initially supposed to cost $4.1 billion, has now ballooned to $23 billion. Of the five reactors, two have been canceled; one was shut down a year ago for lack of financing, although 60 percent completed; one was closed in late May for lack of financing, although it is 74 percent completed. That leaves one plant, which could begin operations next year.

Should the federal government bail out WPPSS, and pay off some $2.25 billion in debt? Legislation to that end has been introduced by Idaho congressman George V. Hansen, who argues that whether Uncle Sam steps in directly or not with financial assistance, taxpayers will eventually be saddled with the debt since the BPA was a catalyst for the project.

The better approach, as urged by the Rea-gan administration, would be to avoid a federal bailout - and the bad precedent that would be set. Why should all US taxpayers have to bear the cost of mistakes made by a consortium of regional officials and utilities?

The honorable course would be for Northwest political and utility officials to eliminate the unnecessary reactors, raise electricity rates to obtain additional revenues, and then restructure WPPSS's debt.

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