Seabrook: symbol of atom's failure? If funding holds up, one unit of the nuclear power plant still may go on line

New Hampshire's troubled Seabrook nuclear power project (left) may mark a watershed for the US industry. Many analysts think it will be abandoned and that the nation will turn to other energy sources. But not everyone has given up on either atomic power or the embattled seaside facility.

TWO domes -- one sheathed with concrete, the other an unfinished mass of rusting iron rods -- sit like beehives on the western flank of Hampton-Seabrook Harbor.

They were supposed to shelter the twin reactors for the Seabrook Nuclear Power Station, planned during a spurt in energy demand as one of the biggest electrical power plants in the United States.

Instead, they could become monuments to the failures the nuclear industry has endured while trying to harness the peaceful atom.

One of them may already have reached that stage. Seabrook Unit 2, little more than one-fourth completed, is ``conditionally canceled.'' Some analysts consider that phrase a euphemism for ``permanently scrapped.''

If Seabrook 2 is abandoned, its owners' changing economic fortunes will have reduced an investment of more than $1 billion to a few million dollars worth of structural odds and ends.

A shrunken crew still toils, for frozen or reduced wages, on the 1,150-megawatt Seabrook Unit 1. There is none of the spit-polished shine of a new plant here. After more than a decade of construction, and with 83 percent of the job done, Seabrook has already acquired the dog-eared patina of an industrial antique. The plant control room, for example, is yet to be finished. But the nicks and scratches, hastily patched slots, and false panels across its main control board are testimony to the many design changes that have been imposed on the plant during its lengthy gestation.

Three state utility commissions are contemplating this reactor's future. Many observers give only slightly better than even odds that Seabrook 1 will avoid the same fate as its twin reactor.

In the meantime, the same question that has dogged a number of such high-cost energy projects is being asked of this endeavor: Would it be cheaper to build Seabrook . . . or not to?

``They may be able to push it over the top,'' says Douglas Foy, head of the public-interest Conservation Law Foundation, about efforts by Seabrook's owners to save the plant.

``But I think that the longer the uncertainty, the worse its prospects of getting completed.''

Supporters of the project say that, if current trends continue, New England will need Seabrook energy to meet power demands by the early 1990s. The two units together would have provided 2,300 megawatts of power; New England's current peak demand is about 16,000 megawatts.

Opponents counter that such increases could be met more cheaply by such measures as conservation, or by exploiting alternate energy sources.

They also say the costs of completing Seabrook will be so high that its owners will never break even on their investment. Rate payers, they charge, will be socked by stratospheric utility bills.

Even officials of New Hampshire Yankee, the company charged with running Seabrook, concede that one of the strongest arguments running in Seabrook 1's favor might involve the amount of money and time that has been sunk into it -- nearly $3 billion and 40 million man-hours of labor.

The debate has taken its toll. At least a dozen lawsuits have been waged against Seabrook over past three years. Seabrook officials say it will cost another $1.6 billion to finish the project.

So regulators in five states have held hearings about Seabrook's viability, meanwhile stopping the project's cash flow and imposing spending caps on the 16 utility companies that are Seabrook's co-owners.

Connecticut's Department of Public Utilities Control last year ordered two companies that own 20 percent of Seabrook out of Seabrook 2, thus effectively stopping the project. The commission says economic projections give a slight edge to Seabrook 1, but it has placed rigid limits on how much more the companies can invest in the project.

Two hearing examiners in Maine, on the other hand, advised that state's Public Service Commission in December that ``the economics of completing Seabrook 1 are simply too marginal to withstand further delays.'' Three Maine utilities, which own 10 percent of Seabrook, were ordered to find buyers for their shares by Feb. 6, or else to scrap the whole project.

The New Hamphire Public Service Commission is in the midst of an investigation to see if a financial bailout plan for Seabrook's primary owner, the beleaguered Public Service Company of New Hampshire (PSNH), is in the public interest.

Massachusetts is reviewing the request by five of its utilities for permission to invest over $300 million more in Seabrook. No decision is expected until the beginning of March. ``You just can't rush these things,'' says Paul Levy, chairman of the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities.

Analysts say that regulators in Vermont are waiting to see what happens elsewhere. Meanwhile, the uncertainty goes on. Each passing week seems to present a new obstacle to Seabrook's completion.

All this makes the going at Seabrook tough. With a weekly budget of $5 million, the project is getting half of what it needs to be finished at the lowest cost and greatest speed. But higher funding levels must await the outcome of the New Hampshire hearings, which could drag on for another two months. Meanwhile, interest charges are running at more than $1 million a day.

Since, at present spending levels, only half the number of craftsmen required to stay on schedule are working at the plant site, the project is slipping behind at a rate of two weeks a month.

Through it all, overhead costs are accumulating. When Seabrook was first proposed in 1972, the estimated price tag for both reactors was $970 million. Today, nearly five years after its initial projected starting date of February 1980, PSNH estimates that the cost of Seabrook 1 alone will total $4.6 billion, with a scheduled operating date of October 1986. And, according to company projections, utility rates for PSNH customers will rise by 192 percent over eight years.

Many think even that projection is unrealistically modest. At the New Hampshire hearings last week, other analysts estimated that Seabrook would be operating no sooner than 1988 at a cost topping $8 billion, which would mean an even greater rate hike.

``I say to the regulators, if you want to pull the plug on [Seabrook], for God's sake do it now. Don't just let this thing drag out,'' says Edward Brown, who last summer left a secure job as chairman of the New England Power Service Company in Massachusetts to head New Hampshire Yankee.

While insisting that Seabrook -- including the maligned second unit -- will turn out to be the most reliable energy source to meet projected energy demands in the 1990s, he admits ``any executive who wanted to propose it today would need his head examined.''

Mr. Brown says that the worst is over. Targets are being regularly met, every few days a new subsystem is completed and tested. They have reached the point where they can begin filling the plant's primary cooling system with water to test its components. Nevertheless, obstacles to Seabrook's completion still loom.

Some public-interest groups are starting a movement to get the NRC to lift its construction permits for Seabrook 2.

If that happened, the utilities would be forced officially to abandon the reactor and write off their $1 billion investment as a loss. Such an occurrence might well be enough to bankrupt PSNH, which owns 35.5 percent of Seabrook.

That would be the end of the Seabrook nuclear facility -- or would it? In its current round of hearings, the New Hampshire Public Service Commission is trying to establish whether bankruptcy by PSNH would necessarily sink the whole project.

``Nothing at all is certain,'' says Wynn Arnold, executive director of the commission.

PSNH has been flirting with bankruptcy for months. The company, which had to lay off 5,200 Seabrook employees in April, won permission from the New Hampshire Supreme Court to market $425 million in new securities to stave off bankruptcy.

That, however, was for non-Seabrook needs, and the company's position is still considered critical.

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