Californians Vote On Fate of Plant

Voters' decision on controversial facility will have repercussions around the country. NUCLEAR POWER

TO critics, it is an Edsel of the energy world - a power plant that has produced more repair bills than kilowatts of electricity and should be shut down. Supporters, however, contend that a recent $400 million overhaul should make it run roller-bearing smooth - and argue that keeping it going is the best way to keep utility bills down.

Source of the debate: the Rancho Seco nuclear generating facility, whose hour-glass cooling towers stand amid bucolic farmland 25 miles southeast of Sacramento.

Today voters in Sacramento County will decide in a referendum the fate of what has long been one of the country's most troubled nuclear plants.

Their decision will carry weight beyond the local utility district. Until now, the nuclear industry has been able to defeat 14 similar referendums around the country.

If customers of the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) decide to close the 15-year-old plant - and polls indicate they might - it would be the first time an American nuclear facility had been shut down by ballot initiative.

``The vote will have repercussions around the country whether it is favorable or unfavorable,'' says Greg Enholm, a utilities analyst with Salomon Brothers in New York.

The vote comes at a sensitive time for the nuclear industry. No new nuclear plant has been ordered in the US since 1978. Sixty-five plants have been canceled.

Later this month shareholders of the Long Island Lighting Company are expected to approve a plan worked out between the utility and New York State to kill off the Shoreham nuclear plant on Long Island, though the move is opposed by US Energy Secretary James Watkins, among others.

Because of technical problems, the Fort St. Vrain nuclear plant in Colorado, the only gas-cooled reactor in the United States, will soon be switched off.

On the other hand, Seabrook in New Hampshire - a progenitor of the antinuclear movement - is beginning low-level testing. The nuclear industry, meanwhile, hopes growing concerns about future electricity demand and worries about the greenhouse effect, which fossil-fuel-burning plants contribute to, will prompt a rethinking on nuclear.

Although the Rancho Seco plant has suffered unusual problems, and thus industry officials believe the vote reflects largely local concerns, any plebiscite on nuclear power at a time when it remains so politically volatile could have nationwide impact.

Last June, SMUD customers narrowly approved a referendum that kept the plant open for a trial period over one that would have closed it immediately. The trial run was to be followed by a special election, which is today's vote. Area residents will now vote yes or no on whether or not to keep the ``ranch'' operating.

Critics contend that a plant that has resulted in electricity rates jumping 92 percent since 1985, when the reactor was shut down for 27 months following an accident, and that has produced only 38 percent of its power capacity in the first 15 years of operation, should be unplugged.

They contend that the least risky - and probably cheapest - route for customers would be to close the plant and buy power from other utilities.

``Its lifetime performance is one of the worst in the nation,'' says Bob Mulholland of Campaign California, a group working to close the plant.

But supporters contend that extensive repairs should make the ranch run smoothly.

Turning it off far ahead of its planned 2008 expiration date, supporters say, would be foolhardy and expensive. They project costs of closing it at $200 million, not to mention the tab for replacement energy. ``It's basically a new plant,'' says Lou Esposito of Citizens for Affordable Energy, a pro-Rancho Seco group.

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