THE freckle-faced Seabrook guide points up at the gray concrete containment dome. ''It's built to withstand a head-on crash of an FB-111 jet,'' she assures visitors. And ''it's set on solid bedrock.''Skip to next paragraph
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But nowadays, the financial footing of this incomplete nuclear power plant is no firmer than the salt marshes that stretch a mile east to the Atlantic Ocean.
Ten years ago, when the project started, the bill was to be $900 million. But inflation, strikes, demonstrations, new federal regulations, and mismanagement have taken their toll.
This month, the Public Service Company of New Hampshire (PSNH) - which is building the twin-reactor nuclear plant - scratched out last year's price estimate of $5.2 billion. The tag now reads $9 billion. And that is a conservative guess, say utility critics.
To pay for the plant, consumers' electricity rates in New Hampshire may jump anywhere from 60 to 100 percent if just one of the two units is finished.
But New Hampshire ratepayers won't shoulder all the cost. Fourteen utilities in Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Connecticut have a slice of the Seabrook pie. Rates could rise some 25 percent in these states.
One after another, over the last 18 months, the joint utility owners have called for the cancellation of Seabrook's Unit II, reported to be 23 percent complete. Last September, PSNH agreed to a half step: Unit II was mothballed after an investment of almost $1 billion.
Some of Seabrook's joint-owners are now questioning the wisdom of Unit I - which PSNH says is 73 percent complete - and most are pushing for actual cancellation of Unit II. Eighty percent of the owners must agree on such a move. PSNH can block any decision with its 35 percent share.
''The leading impediment to cancellation (of Unit II) is the uncertainty of PSNH's investment if they abandon the plant,'' says Douglas Foy, executive director of the Boston-based Conservation Law Foundation, a nonprofit environmental organization. ''There is a serious question as to whether they can get the money from ratepayers,'' says the utility critic.
Mr. Foy is referring to the ''anti-contruction work in progress'' law passed by the New Hampshire Legislature in 1979. The law keeps construction costs from being passed on until the plant is ''actually providing service to customers.''
A case testing the anti-CWIP law was sent to the New Hampshire Supreme Court two weeks ago. The court was asked to rule on a request by PSNH to pass on the costs of a canceled Massachusetts reactor to consumers. PSNH spent $16.5 million on Pilgrim II, which was scrapped three years ago. A decision, expected within six months, is likely to set the precedent for recovery of costs for Seabrook's Unit II, if it is canceled.
''If PSNH can't recover that money on Unit II, they would be bankrupt by the loss. And they would persist (with Unit II) until the bitter end,'' Foy predicts. Value Line Investment Survey's most recent analysis of PSNH offers a similar assessment.
Lately, bankruptcy is being mentioned more often.
Gov. John H. Sununu's (R) unflinching support for Seabrook wavered for the first time this month, when he said the time had come to ''reassess'' the project. He accused PSNH of mismanagement, but vowed to prevent its bankruptcy.
South of the border, Seabrook's two largest utility partners may face financing problems that could cause PSNH some additional concern.