Tomorrow, voters in Maine will decide whether to shut down the Maine Yankee nuclear power plant in their state. If they do, it will be the first time ever that a state's citizens have forced the closing of an operating nuclear power plant. Implications for the nuclear power industry are clear. Already, investors regard nuclear power as risky. Nuclear stocks tumbled more than utility stocks generally in the recent market decline, says Arthur Medalie, an investment analyst at Value Line Inc. in New York.
If voters reject the Maine Yankee plant, it would encourage similar efforts in Massachusetts and California, making investors all the more uneasy, and putting the future of nuclear power further in doubt.
``There is a very strong undercurrent of anti-nuclear sentiment,'' Mr. Medalie observes.
Not surprisingly, the 11 utility-company owners of the Maine Yankee plant, with help from major industries, have broken all records for Maine campaign spending, spending close to $5 million to defeat the initiative. Supporters, meanwhile, have exceeded their goal of $500,000, 90 percent of which comes from small contributors.
Similar initiatives failed twice before in Maine, in 1980 and 1982. Maine Yankee's low rates - the cheapest of any United States nuclear plant - outweighed safety concerns that, to most voters, seemed remote. But last year the federal Department of Energy (DOE) brought the issue home by raising the possibility of nuclear waste dumps in the state.
``People who don't live close to Maine Yankee live close to the possible dump sites,'' says Al Giordano, a consultant to the Maine Nuclear Referendum Committee. Suddenly, the plant was ``right next door to a lot more people.''
But such statements are ``scare tactics,'' according to Bob Deis, spokesman for the industry-backed Yes on One Committee (a ``yes'' vote keeps the plant open). He claims there is little chance the DOE will actually put a nuclear dump in Maine. Whether Maine Yankee is operating or not, he says, will be irrelevant to the decision.
Mr. Giordano notes that the DOE generally follows the path of least political resistance in choosing dump sites. If Maine voters show they aren't very concerned about wastes, he says, ``isn't that tantamount to an invitation to DOE to put the nuclear waste dump here?''
Initiative supporters say the industry is using scare tactics of its own on the question of rates. When Maine Yankee shut down for five months earlier this year for repairs, other facilities in the state picked up the slack, so supply is not an immediate concern. But Mr. Deis says this electricity cost an extra $200,000 a day; and representatives of the Governor (who opposes the initiative) have said rates could increase by as much as 50 percent if the plant closes for good.
Supporters counter that these estimates are only the utility's assumptions. David Platt, editor of the Maine Times, supports the initiative but thinks conservation, not waste dumps, is the issue. ``We could keep [rates] within bounds with a conservation scenario.''