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Sparks of criticism arc around the troubled Boston Edison. Reports cite poor management, term its nuclear plant unsafe

There's one utility in New England that seems to be generating nothing but the wrong kind of electricity. Boston Edison -- the region's second-largest utility -- has been stung repeatedly in the past four months by high-voltage reports criticizing the company for irresponsible management. The reports have sparked a mounting sense of insecurity -- both with the company's nuclear power plant and with the region's future energy supply. (When plant security guards went on strike Monday evening, that uneasy feeling was not alleviated.)

Last Thursday, the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities (DPU) publicly castigated Edison for its sluggishness in pursuing conservation and alternative energy sources. ``The company's management has become paralyzed and has abdicated its managerial responsibilities,'' the DPU wrote, explaining why it rejected Edison's proposed rate hike and lowered the company's allowable return on equity from 15.25 percent to 12 percent.

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Edison executives -- though silent since the attack -- suggested earlier that their conservative stance toward alternative energy sources reflect harsh DPU regulations that discouraged new investment, and not bad management. Ironically, just hours before the scathing report was released, company officials vowed to become the East Coast's leading utility in conservation and renewable energy.

To some extent, that late-breaking commitment may soften the blow of the DPU report. But it won't soothe the public's anxiety over recent findings by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

In March, the commission blasted Edison for its poor handling of the Pilgrim nuclear power plant, located about 40 miles south of Boston. And in May, only weeks after the devastating nuclear accident at Chernobyl in the Soviet Union, three NRC commissioners called Pilgrim one of the nation's worst-managed and potentially least-safe reactors.

The nuclear plant, which normally accounts for 40 percent of Boston Edison's electrical output, has been out of operation since April 12, when a safety problem triggered the plant's automatic shutdown system for the second time in eight days. The NRC report has postponed the plant's reopening until a management review is completed by mid-July.

Edison officials say there should be no further delays, since the structural and managerial flaws are being handled. But recent developments -- including public reaction to Chernobyl -- have stirred such sentiment that it remains uncertain whether the plant will reopen that soon.

Last week, two nuclear-safety proponents -- Robert Pollard, a former NRC official who now works for the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), and Daniel Ford, the group's former executive director -- spoke out about the flaws in Pilgrim's Mark I containment system. The design, they say, is strikingly similar to the containment structure that ruptured at the Chernobyl reactor.

But what is more striking, says Mr. Ford, is that the NRC has known that all along. He points to documents -- obtained by the UCS -- that show the NRC's hushed warnings to utility executives.

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``NRC has yet to address the issue of its own shortcoming in having licensed a plant with known design defects,'' Ford says. ``There's a hardware problem at Pilgrim, not just a management problem.''

So far, however, Edison executives have taken most of the heat. Charges of poor management are still the biggest clouds hovering over the Pilgrim plant.

Nearly three weeks ago, Pilgrim managers admitted that they had -- among other things -- failed to conduct 90 percent of the routine tests required to check crucial safety valves, ones designed to contain the spread of a radioactive leak in case of an accident.

Last week, Gov. Michael S. Dukakis joined the fray, saying he would try to keep Pilgrim shut until safety problems had been solved. The Bay State governor, however, stopped short of endorsing a petition being filed by legislators and anti-nuclear groups.

The petition seeks to suspend Pilgrim's operating license until Edison fixes structural flaws, management problems, and what opponents see as deficiencies in the evacuation plan, says Rachel Shimshak, an energy advocate for the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group.

What are its chances? ``I can't think of one example of a `show-cause' petition being accepted by the NRC,'' Ms. Shimshak says. ``But I can't think of a plant more troubled than Pilgrim. This might be a historic first.''

If Pilgrim's license is suspended -- or even revoked, as some suggest -- Edison would be in deep financial trouble. And without nuclear power, says Richard S. Hahn, Edison's manager of supply and demand planning, ``we could not continue to meet our customers' needs.''

But others say the region can survive without nuclear power -- but only if Edison aggressively pursues a strategy of conservation and alternative energy sources.

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