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Even in the homestretch, Seabrook reactor faces formidable obstacles

After 40 million man-hours of labor, arrests of hundreds of anti-nuclear protesters, and a tenfold increase in cost, the on-again, off-again nuclear power plant project in Seabrook, N.H., is almost finished. But its future is still in doubt. Regulatory bodies in Massachusetts and Vermont have just joined Maine in dealing financing blows to the 16 utilities that own Seabrook 1. The reactor, though 86 percent complete and as little as 17 months from completion, is already five years behind schedule.

Several of the utilities have been on the edge of bankruptcy. One of them, a small Massachusetts utility that owns 1 percent of Seabrook, defaulted on its bimonthly payment to the project Wednesday. Seabrook's principal owner, Public Service Company of New Hampshire, plans to follow suit later this month unless state regulators allow the utility to tap into new sources of funds.

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The moves threaten the byzantine network of regulatory and financial arrangements that has kept the project alive so far.

As construction activity at the Seabrook site itself finally hits the homestretch, the question is: Will Seabrook 1 squeeze through to completion, or will it be abandoned? Its sister reactor on the western flank of Hampton-Seabrook harbor was scrapped last year, one-quarter of the way to completion.

``There is absolutely no question that Seabrook will be up and running,'' says Edward Brown, director of the Seabrook project. The plant passed a milestone early last month when it tested the reactor's cooling system, under budget and three months ahead of schedule. Seabrook officials expect to be ready for a dry-run test of the entire plant system by December. They hope that by August of next year, Seabrook 1, with an estimated final price tag of $4.6 billion, will be ready to go.

Yet Seabrook officials are more optimistic than other observers. The Conservation Law Foundation, a Boston-based public-interest group, notes that several construction details have been held over to the last minute -- thus speeding up the timetable now, but possibly delaying completion down the road.

Armed with such details, along with opponents' predictions that the plant could not be finished before 1988, the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities last month cited a ``reasonable possibility that the Seabrook 1 power plant will never be completed.'' It clamped severe restrictions on the ability of three utilities in the Seabrook project to issue new stocks or bonds to pay for the reactor. This month, Vermont utilities were ordered by the state's Public Service Board to sell their shares in Seabrook and push for the project's cancellation.

``It is time to cut our losses,'' a board statement said. Earlier this year, a similar order from Maine's public utilities commission was passed down to the three utilities in that state with a share in the Seabrook project.

It is not known yet whether any of these actions will deal a fatal blow to Seabrook. All are currently under appeal. Officials at New Hampshire Yankee, the company charged with Seabrook's completion, insist that even if some of the appeals fail, enough funds exist in various Seabrook escrow accounts to tide the project over -- assuming it stays on schedule.

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Supporters of the project say that if current trends continue, New England will need the 1,150 megawatts of power provided by Seabrook 1. Alternative sources, notably hydropower from Quebec, will not be enough to fill the void left by an incomplete Seabrook, they say.

But the cost of Seabrook power will not be cheap. Estimates of consumer costs vary widely, but it is generally agreed that Seabrook power will be the most expensive in New England. Critics point to several cheaper energy alternatives, coal and natural gas among them, that they say would render the Seabrook option obsolete.

Even officials of New Hampshire Yankee concede that one of the strongest arguments in Seabrook's favor involves simply the amount of time and money invested in it. Says Yankee chairman Brown: ``Any executive who wanted to propose [Seabrook] today would need his head examined.''

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