Seabrook: litmus test for nuclear industry. Plant faces financial and PR hurdles. Waiting to come on line
Seabrook, N.H. — Inside the building that holds Seabrook's reactor, the nuclear fuel is loaded and ready. A few technicians hover over a piece of machinery, testing and retesting it. They look like car dealers giving a last buff to the fleet before opening up the showroom.
But despite this air of readiness, Seabrook Station is still a long way from from generating commercial power.
The plant, nestled on the coast north of Boston, is caught in a financial and regulatory morass that threatens to pull at least one of its owners into bankruptcy. Federal regulators are scrambling to clear the way for the controversial project, but some argue it is already too late.
In many ways, Seabrook has become a litmus test for the viability of nuclear power.
Utilities across the country are watching to see what happens here, figuring that if Seabrook never opens, it is unlikely that new projects will succeed anywhere. The failure of Seabrook would even cast a pall over existing plants.
``It would be bad for the general karma of the industry,'' says Kevin Billings, a lobbyist with the American Nuclear Energy Council.
Walking through the inner sanctum of Seabrook - a maze of underground passageways, control rooms, and cavernous spaces - you get the feeling such possibilities aren't even considered here.
``The question isn't whether Seabrook will open, it's a matter of when,'' says David Scanzoni, a spokesman for New Hampshire Yankee, the company that manages the plant.
The plant is already licensed to test its nonnuclear components - everything from tiny valves to a steam turbine the length of a jumbo jet. Seabrook is actually a complex maze of pipes and machinery, only the heart of which is nuclear. The fission reaction is used to generate heat that produces steam to turn the massive two-staged turbine.
On a rack near the lunchroom sit row upon row of pocket-sized meters, each inscribed with a name, designed to measure the amount of radiation workers are exposed to in the course of the day.
But this is still dress rehearsal.
Before Seabrook can open, it has to clear several hurdles in the licensing process. The first, a low-power license, could be issued as early as March.
Low-power testing involves bringing the reactor up to 5 percent of its generating capacity to see how it performs. If it works properly, the company will be eligible to apply for a full-power license.
The major obstacle to low-power testing was cleared away last fall, when the Nuclear Regulatory Commission changed the rules on emergency planning.
Communities just over the state line in Massachusetts, led by Gov. Michael Dukakis, have refused to cooperate with the development of evacuation plans for populations within a 10-mile radius of the plant. Under the old rules, that left Seabrook in limbo.
But in November, federal regulators announced that they would consider plans drafted by New Hampshire Yankee - even though the Massachusetts communities refused to sign on.
``There's a misconception about safety and nuclear plants,'' says Mr. Scanzoni. ``Most people don't realize that we won't explode. In the unlikely event of an accident, the emergency would unfold over several hours.'' There would be plenty of time to clear the area, he says.
Still, critics complain that the location of Seabrook makes prompt evacuation impossible.
The population of nearby beaches, the nearest clearly visible across a marshy expanse behind the plant, swells to some 100,000 on hot summer days.
Presidential politics in this bellwether primary state have further complicated matters.
All seven democratic candidates have spoken out against the licensing of Seabrook. And last week, Republican presidential candidate Robert Dole said federal regulators should delay issuing a testing license until an independent scientific group has checked the Massachusetts evacuation plan.
Meanwhile, Seabrook is doing everything it can to persuade its neighbors that there's nothing to worry about.
In the last month, the plant opened two store-front ``energy information centers'' in small towns within the evacuation zone, and a third is planned. Two of the centers will be in Massachusetts communities. A series of ads is appearing in local newspapers, featuring employees from Seabrook who tell how their jobs contribute to the overall safety of the plant.
Advocates of the plant argue that the Seabrook facility is crucial to New England's long-term energy needs. According to a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, the region could face electricity shortages by the early 1990s.
But critics say this power, if it is actually needed, could be gotten elsewhere - and at much better prices. Indeed, opposition to the plant, once characterized by noisy protests outside the gates, has been transformed into a middle-class crusade against higher utility rates.
Seabrook was supposed to deliver power competitive with oil at $12 a barrel. But in the wake of gigantic cost overruns, that is a long-forgotten dream.
The plant was supposed to cost less than $1 billion to build, but came in at around $5 billion and with only half the anticipated capacity. A second reactor was never completed.
And the meter keeps running. Every day the plant sits idle costs the consortium of 12 utilities that own Seabrook nearly $1.7 million - money needed just to keep the plant open and cover the financing on the initial investment.
At this point, the owners would like simply to cut their losses. Some utilities have started talking about absorbing part of the cost of Seabrook, rather than passing it along to their consumers.
But this doesn't satisfy activists, who argue that money shouldn't have been poured into the plant in the first place.
``They've spent themselves into oblivion,'' says Kirk Stone, a Union of Concerned Scientists organizer based in New Hampshire. ``At this point, they're way beyond the bounds of reasonable cost for ratepayers.''
Especially hard hit is Public Service of New Hampshire, Seabrook's major shareholder. Last fall, the utility was forced to stop paying interest on most of its unsecured loans.
The company is now scrambling to restructure its debts and is asking for a 15 percent rate increase. It could be forced into bankruptcy at any time.
Other utilities involved in Seabrook are on firmer financial ground.
But it is not clear whether they would be willing to pick up the pieces if Public Service of New Hampshire were forced out of business.
And so, for now, the rehearsals at Seabrook continue.
Several times a day, for instance, a chemist pulls a sample from the ocean water pumped in from the Atlantic. The water is used routinely as coolant for the plant. The water's chlorine content is monitored to make sure it doesn't exceed federally mandated levels. The chlorine is added before the water enters the plant to keep marine organisms from clogging the pipes.
``We do hundreds of checks and tests,'' says New Hampshire Yankee's Scanzoni. That's the only way, he says, that Seabrook will be ready when its time finally comes.