MOST PEOPLE, we figure, will have the same first reaction we did to Vepco's plan to charge its customers the $165 million it will cost to abandon the North Anna 4 nuclear power plant. "The investment was made for benefits of the customers," said Vepco President William Berry, " and we feel the customers should bear it." Many customers might be tempted to retort, "The mistake was made by company management, and the stockholders should bear it."
There is no question that Vepco, especially its nuclear division, used to be badly managed. But about a year ago, the company cleaned house, and there is some evidence that the almost wholly new management team is making a serious effort to correct past mistakes. Among those mistakes was an unrealistic nuclear plant construction schedule. North Anna 4 is the third planned reactor to be canceled by the company in as many years.
A more compelling reason for the State Corporation Commission to approve Vepco's plan is that the utility is in the process of a painful transition from a period of rapid electric growth to one of very low growth that neither it nor any other utility foresaw, or could have foreseen.
Vepco would have been negligent if, in the circumstances of the late 1960s, it had not been planning for very rapid expansion. Its customers do not pay just for power, they pay for an assurance of a reliable supply of power, and as much of it as they are likely to need or want. A dozen years ago, most people thought that high growth in demand for electricity was inevitable. The believers included not only utility managers but the customers, and every state and federal agency dealing with power regulation. It was only in the mid-1970s that both producers and consumers began to realize that they were going to use much less.
Vepco's original decision to begin North Anna 4 was right at the time it was made. But since then, the whole development of the economy shifted, and the decision to cancel the plant is the right one now. If the company proceeded to finish it, North Anna 4 would doubtless be routinely added to the company's conventional rate base, and the customers would routinely pay for it. The price of cancellation will be substantial, but it will be less than one-tenth the price of completion. Utilities all over the country face similar decisions. It's important not to penalize them for making the unconventional choices that will ultimately save the customers far more than they cost.
This is true regardless of whether a particular plant burns oil, coal or atoms, because energy production is gobbling up the country's limited supply of investment capital at a dangerously rapid rate. The cancellation of North Anna 4 should not be taken as a vote of no-confidence in nuclear power. It simply marks Vepco's progress in a realistic adjustment to a future of less waste and more efficiency in energy use.