Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant

Chapter 18 -- Part 4

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For two decades, the story of the construction and licensing of the Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant has captured local and national news headlines, and the affair shows no sign of being resolved in the near future. One book already has been written on some legal aspects of the plant, but a volume much larger than this history could easily be devoted to the lengthy, complicated, and controversial story of the effort of Public Service Company of New Hampshire (PSNH) to build what could be the largest nuclear-power plant in the world. Legal documents filed by the company and by interveners would fill a small room, so nothing more than a brief summary will appear here.

Situated in Seabrook at the edge of the marsh and about 2 miles from the center of Hampton and Hampton Beach, Unit I of the power station operated briefly at low power for testing purposes in June 1989. But the story begins 20 years earlier, when nuclear energy was considered to be the power source of the future. PSNH originally announced its intention to build an 860,000-kilowatt plant at Seabrook in December 1968. The plant was predicted to be completed in 1974, and, the Union said, "Management of Public Service does not anticipate difficulties in obtaining the necessary licenses and permits for the Seabrook site because it is not near an air base [as was Newington, its first choice for a site], and condenser cooling water can be discharged directly to deep water in the Atlantic Ocean."

PSNH had previously submitted testimony on new power-plant construction routinely to the state Public Utilities Commission; with little opposition from the public or from the usually sympathetic commission, permission for construction was granted with few delays. This time, however, citizens entered the matter with a determination not anticipated by the power company or state officials. In March 1969, the Seacoast Anti-Pollution League (SAPL), composed originally of mostly Hampton and Hampton Falls residents, was formed to oppose construction. Within months, PSNH announced that the nuclear project was being deferred beyond 1975, and in the interim, a fossil-fuel plant would be constructed in Newington.

While SAPL applauded the company's decision "not to go nuclear," the group's hopes were dashed in February 1971 when the company announced it would continue with plans to build not one but two nuclear reactors to generate 2.2 million kilowatts of electricity -- to be constructed at an estimated cost of $1 billion at the Seabrook site. The company's rationale (then and now) for building the massive plant was based on its predicted need for electric power in New Hampshire and New England, and its belief that nuclear energy was the best way to supply its customers. To pursue the project, a consortium of (eventually) some 16 to 17 other power companies joined with PSNH to provide funding. Since that time, the issue has been debated in the press and heard by state panels, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Atomic Energy Commission, and, later, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, as well as before several federal courts. Led by attorney Robert Backus, who has become a nationally recognized expert on nuclear-power legal issues, SAPL has continued its opposition, primarily pursuing legal avenues.

Few original members of SAPL knew much about nuclear energy; they were mainly interested in the impact of the power plant on the adjacent salt marsh. Indeed, the company first proposed dumping its heated reactor cooling water directly into Hampton River, a situation that biologists predicted would be devastating to clams, fish, and other marine life. The discharged water would be about 40 degrees hotter when returned to the harbor. Apparently realizing the problems in securing permits for this type of discharge, PSNH announced that intake and outflow tunnels to carry the cooling water and heated discharge would be built under the marsh and the harbor to a point offshore, at a cost of some $600 million.

PSNH broke ground for construction in August 1976, but that fall, the New England regional administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency rejected the cooling tunnel discharge system, placing in doubt the future of the then-$2 billion project. This decision was later overruled by the EPA director in Washington.

Although opposition to the plant through legal channels remained a focus for SAPL and several other opponents, a new approach was tried on May Day 1977, when the newly formed Clamshell Alliance organized a massive civil-disobedience protest and hundreds of demonstrators were arrested after they occupied the plant site for 24 hours, then refused to move. The 1,414 men, women, and children who were arrested asked to be released on personal recognizance, but when the Hampton District Court declined to accept such requests, the protesters refused to post bail. Most of them were taken to state armories, where they were held for up to 12 days while awaiting trials before the jammed court system. Most of the cases were eventually heard at mass trials, or by individuals pleading not guilty by mailing a form to the court. Most of the demonstrators pleaded not guilty, were found guilty, then appealed their convictions to the Superior Court. The State spent an estimated $1 million handling the protest and keeping the arrested demonstrators in the makeshift armory jails. In June 1978, some 10,000 people were allowed onto the construction site for a daylong protest with nationally known musicians and speakers, creating a carnival like atmosphere. Despite protests from the state attorney general in 1979, the cases were dropped against some 800 people who had appealed their convictions from the 1977 demonstration. The protests turned violent in 1979, when police used attack dogs, tear gas, and riot sticks to turn away some 2,000 demonstrators. In individual protests and in organized demonstrations, members of the Clamshell Alliance have continued to oppose the plant and to be arrested at the site. The most recent mass protest was in June 1989, when some 800 people were arrested. Although many people question the methods and the impact of the Clamshell demonstrations, their protests have attracted media attention, making the Seabrook plant a national issue, especially now that construction has been completed for several years yet the plant is not operating. No other nuclear-power plants are under construction or even planned, so Seabrook remains the national focus for those who oppose or support this form of energy.

Since the construction and licensing of the plant are controlled by federal agencies, there is little that individual communities can do to become involved with the nuclear-power issue. Seabrook, for example, early on voted to sell PSNH the 35-acre town dump on Rocks Road as the site of the plant. This vote has been taken by plant supporters to indicate that the people of Seabrook were in favor of the project. Under state law, however, the company could take the land by eminent domain, a technique it used to acquire most of the 700 other acres necessary for the project. Since state law allows real estate to be taxed by individual towns, Seabrook has received a huge windfall of tax income -- enough to build and pay cash for the construction of a municipal office building, recreation center, police headquarters, and fire station. At one point, the power plant was paying some 90 percent of Seabrook's taxes, and this has had an impact on Hampton taxpayers as well. As a member of the Winnacunnet Cooperative School District, Seabrook pays a share of the district costs based on a formula involving the number of students from the town and its property valuation. As the value of the plant under construction increased, so did the taxes on it, and Seabrook in turn paid a larger and larger share of the costs of Winnacunnet. The construction consortium, however, appealed its tax bills to the state and has been awarded lower valuations, resulting in Seabrook having to refund millions of dollars in taxes. The lower valuation of the power facility means Seabrook will pay a smaller share of Winnacunnet costs, and Hampton, along with Hampton Falls, and North Hampton, will have to pay more.

Since 1979, the tunnels and power lines that run through Hampton have been taxed for a total of more than $4.8 million. The 1985 assessment of $1.5 million, now being litigated, was enough to cut Hampton's tax rate by nearly $4. In that year, the State reduced the valuation of the tunnels, resulting in a $3 increase in the 1986 tax rate. In 1988, the consortium of plant owners, known as New Hampshire Yankee, paid Hampton $293,600 in taxes, down from $830,000 in 1987.

Another impact of the plant that is difficult to assess has come from the thousands of construction workers, many of whom found housing at Hampton Beach. The seacoast has limited rental housing except at the Beach, which for many years has provided essentially low-income winter housing. With construction workers needing living quarters, many Beach property owners upgraded seasonal and marginal year-round buildings to meet the demand, resulting in a dramatic increase in the winter Beach population. Traditionally, winter renters moved out in the summer when the rents increased substantially, but the highly paid plant workers could afford a couple of months of high rents and remained in their units year round, or least while they had jobs. Layoffs, strikes, and other construction delays meant that hundreds of workers were coming and going, creating a lack of stability, which a permanent work force would have given the area. In 1978, for example, opponents successfully appealed the EPA ruling to permit the cooling tunnels, resulting in a shutdown of construction and the layoff of 1,800 workers from the then-$2.5 billion project. Just two weeks later, however, work began again. A shutdown in April 1984, with 5,200 workers laid off, highlighted another impact of the construction of the plant on Hampton. Within days, workers and their families left the area in search of other jobs, and the school enrollment dropped by 70 pupils. Real estate agents said winter rentals were off by 50 percent compared to the previous winter, when plant construction had been underway with 8,000 workers. While Hampton residents often decried traffic problems created by the commuting plant workers, the Town probably has had a net tax gain because of the improvements in many Beach properties.

As early as 1972, SAPL had expressed concerns about the problems of evacuation, which would result if the then-proposed plant had an accident. At a unique meeting with the Atomic Energy Commission in 1974, SAPL was told the commission did not approve plants in high-population-density areas. Federal agencies and PSNH apparently did not wish to address the issue of summer beach populations. Company lawyer Thomas G. Dignan, Jr., said that the summer populations were protected by the plant's second containment structure and by engineered safeguards. Donald E. Stever, representing the state attorney general, told the AEC that the summer population located between 1 and 7 miles from the plant site "is greater than any previously licensed reactor," a factor "sufficient to raise the question of the appropriateness of the site." Opponents pointed out that as many as 100,000 people could be on Hampton Beach during a busy summer weekend, and many people were familiar with the traffic problems created when thunderstorms struck. Since these storms usually come in the afternoon, sunbathers quickly run for their vehicles and head for home, soon clogging the roads in a hopeless traffic jam. What would happen, critics asked, if there were an accident and panic-stricken vacationers and local residents alike all attempted at once to leave the Beach and the rest of the seacoast area.

Some people argue that the evacuation problem should have been addressed before the plant was built. Following the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plant accident, SAPL filed suit against the NRC, arguing that construction should be halted until after the evacuation issue was resolved. The court ruled that the regulatory agency could address the evacuation issue when it wanted to do so and that it would not have to be concerned with financial pressures if the plant was completed. The construction was allowed to proceed, although in 1983 PSNH decided to cancel Unit II (a recommendation of the PUC and many of the minority owners), which was about 25 percent completed. The cost of completing Unit I was then estimated at $3 billion. By June 1989, when the low-power operating license was granted, and with most other issues resolved, only the evacuation question remained to be settled. As early as 1980, Hampton Civil Defense Director Jay Tanzer was frustrated" by state and federal agencies in his efforts to develop an evacuation plan; finally he resigned. Hampton selectmen assailed a draft evacuation plan submitted in 1982, since it hardly mentioned Hampton Beach. When the final $600,000 report was issued a year later, the consultants suggested Hampton Beach could be evacuated in six or seven hours, a time frame one town official rejected as a "joke." The plan relied on public employees assisting with the evacuation, but Hampton's public workers, except for the rubbish employees, said they would not remain at work, apparently preferring to assist their own families or believing that when they signed on to work for the Town, the evacuation issue was not a factor of employment.

Eventually the evacuation planning issue was focused on the area 10 miles in radius from the plant site. Citizens Within the 10-Mile Radius was organized to oppose the issue; many of the members were from the six Massachusetts towns within the radius. Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis and Attorney General James Shannon have asserted that the towns cannot be evacuated adequately. The Massachusetts attorney general and intervenor groups like SAPL have filed various suits to prevent operation of the plant, which was finally completed in 1986 at a cost of $4.5 billion.

Six of the New Hampshire towns within the 10-mile radius, including Hampton, refused to participate in the evacuation planning, so the company submitted a plan for them that was accepted by federal agencies. Hampton voters have acted on Seabrook issues at several town meetings. In 1980, for example, voters in Hampton and four other seacoast towns asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to halt construction until the evacuation issue was resolved. Selectmen involved the town in the evacuation issue as early as 1982, when they were told that it would not cost any money to become intervenors, but that unless the Town participated in various hearings on evacuation, the Town would have no say in the results. The selectmen, who have been supported by residents, wrote in the 1987 town report that the Town of Hampton "continued its stance that no evacuation plan is workable for the Town in event of an accident at Seabrook Station." At the 1987 town meeting, voters authorized the selectmen to "undertake all legal action and lawful means necessary ... to present the Town's objections and contentions with respect to the Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant." No specific sum was appropriated, but the Town spent $80,000. A special article, raising some $45,000, was approved by voters at the 1989 town meeting.

Complicating the issue was the 1988 bankruptcy of PSNH, the plant's lead owner. The company had expected to assess ratepayers for construction work in progress (CWIP), a financing method that PSNH said would save money, since they would not have to borrow funding and pay interest over the construction period. In 1979, however, the Legislature passed an anti-CWIP law. Incumbent governor and ardent plant supporter Meldrim Thomson, Jr., lost his bid for a fourth term to Hugh Gallen, who had made opposition to CWIP a major issue in his campaign. Although the measure received the support of plant opponents, the law passed primarily because ratepayers did not believe they should have to pay for the construction costs of a power plant that might never be completed. PSNH originally had argued that since the plant was to be operated by that company, it had to be located in New Hampshire, where it was incorporated and the company could control the construction. Ironically, the company's financing woes have resulted in its having to sell off part of its ownership in the plant so that it no longer owns a majority of the plant, although it retains the largest (35.6) percentage of ownership and has some two-thirds of its assets, or $2 billion, tied up in the plant. This 20-year-old issue seems certain to remain in the headlines for years to come, and since the predicted operating life of the plant is about 30 years, if it ever operates, its final story probably will be told in Hampton's next town history, the 2038 edition.

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