Partners in Seabrook nuclear plant work to keep New Hampshire project alive

Public Service Company of New Hampshire (PSNH) is days away from bankruptcy. But a last-minute solution may be in the making. This past weekend, the lead partner in the Seabrook nuclear power project met with bankers, the 15 joint-owners, and attorneys to hammer out a way to raise $ 300 million.

The answer may be to place the project under the aegis of a new corporation - ''relieving all of (the joint owners) of the financing,'' according to testimony given Monday before the Connecticut Department of Utility Control by William Ellis, the chief executive officer of Northeast Utilities. The utility has a 4 percent share of the Seabrook project.

Each of the joint owners would hold stocks in this separate new corporation, which would own, finish building, and operate Seabrook's Unit I. ''The new entity would raise its own financing,'' Mr. Ellis told reporters after the hearing. He estimated it would need to raise ''a billion or two'' to finish the project. He also anticipated that the project would be debt financed - requiring little or no down payment by Seabrook's joint owners.

Ellis admits that the plan would take more time to implement than PSNH has. He said he hoped the plan would create enough confidence so that commercial bankers would be willing to loosen their purse strings until it became viable.

''There are a lot of questions, and a lot has to happen before they could get started,'' says Standard & Poor's vice-president of electric utility ratings, Doug Randall. Only if the idea gets past federal nuclear regulatory officials could it begin to make sense economically, he says.

Is this the only option, other than bankruptcy, being considered by PSNH now?

''No. PSNH is still trying to work out something with the large investment corporations and the commercial banks,'' Ellis says.

Even if PSNH solves its short-term credit problems, ''I don't think you can heave a sigh of relief,'' says Mr. Randall of Standard & Poors. ''It will keep the the wolf away from the door for only a short time.''

On Monday, Moody's credit-rating service downgraded PSNH security ratings for the second time in two months. And last week Standard & Poors downgraded the credit rating on securities of PSNH and another Seabrook partner, Massachusetts Municipal Wholesale Electric Company. Eight other partners in the project were put on the rating company's CreditWatch list.

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