Swept by a torrent of lawsuits and ballot box revolts, the Pacific Northwest is on the brink of an unprecedented financial disaster because of a nuclear building program that may quadruple electric bills, bankrupt several local communities and trigger one of the biggest bond defaults in U.S. history.
By March, officials here say, the Washington Public Power Supply System, which is responsible for building five huge nuclear plants, will have no money left to pay its creditors and will be forced into default if no help arrives. Two of the plants, although 17 percent and 23 percent complete, respectively, have been canceled.
But 88 utilities in three states have been told that they still owe $7 billion in principal and interest on the defunct plants even though they are never going to receive a watt of electricity from them.
"WPPSS appears to be on a collision course with default . . . ," Eileen Titmuss, vice president of the New York brokerage firm Drexel Burnham Lambert, told her clients in October. One small utility already has filed for protection from its creditors in federal bankruptcy court.
Inflation, mismanagement, gigantic cost overruns and declining demand for electricity due to the recession and conservation are at the root of the problem. A taxpayers' revolt last year stripped WPPSS -- which most Northwesterners call "Whoops" -- of the power to borrow money for the projects without voter approval.
Local public utility commissioners who supported the plants were swept out of office in last month's elections.
Taypayer anger and editorial outrage here reached as far as Washington, D.C., where the Senate moved to confirm Donald P. Hodel as secretary of energy even though he encouraged development of the five plants when he served as head of the Bonneville Power Administration.
The five unfinished nuclear power plants carry the greatest long-term, tax-exempt bond debt in history, even more than New York City owed when it was threatened with bankruptcy in 1975.
"A WPPSS default would be the biggest bad thing that could happen to the region," Washington state Senate Majority Leader Ted Bottiger said recently, but there seems to be little prospect of a political bailout on this end. Proposals to spread the debt over the whole area have received little enthusiasm because voter disgust with WPPSS is so great.
Even with electric rates three times higher than they were five years ago and still rising, power here is still cheaper than in most of the rest of the country. Some politicians say it would be unwise to focus attention on how addicted Northwesterners have become to cheap electricity and all-electric homes.
Utilities in Oregon won a preliminary court victory in their effort to escape responsibility for the debt on the two canceled plants.
Utility commissioners in Idaho and Washington fear they might become personally responsible for the debt if they don't try every way to avoid it. But the debt will have to be paid by someone, most likely residents of Washington state, where the supply system is based.
If the system does default, as some taxpayer group advocates are suggesting as the best alternative, it would be difficult or impossible for communities here to finance libraries, roads, schools and other local projects for years to come.
Edward Kresky, a financial adviser to the BPA, even suggested in a November memo that "the state of Washington itself would be forced to pay enormous penalties in the [bond] marketplace" if the supply system defaulted.
"No matter what you do, you're going to lose," said Steve Zemke, chairman of the Don't Bankrupt Washington Committee, a citizens group that helped bring the crisis to a head by passing the ballot measure that cut off the supply system's power to borrow more money without voter approval.
"If you pay, it's going to cost $7 billion for which you will get nothing. If you don't pay, we will have 10 years for which we can't get bonds for other projects, or we'll have to pay very high interest."
Two days before Christmas the Orcas Power and Light Co., which serves several small communities north of Seattle, filed for protection from its creditors under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Act.
Interim manager Gib Snow said the utility had been told it owed $45 million on the two canceled plants, with $2 million of that, about half the company's annual income, due in the coming year. To pay would risk the collapse of the utility.
"That would have meant a 60 percent increase in our rates, and we already have people here who have decided they don't want to be our customers anymore," Snow said.
In McCleary, a forest area town of 1,500 people west of Olympia, the bill for paying the 30-year debt on the two plants that have been canceled comes to nearly $3 million.
"There is no way for the city to raise those funds," said Mayor Ted Rakoski. "We are considering very strongly going into bankruptcy," even though that would doom plans to borrow money to cleanse the town's drinking water of foul-smelling sulfur.
The WPPSS fiasco has sent a chill through the rest of the troubled American nuclear power industry, but the greatest impact of the financial disaster has been in the Northwest, where the unemployment rate is the worst since the Depression.
The forest industry here is in deep trouble, government resources are already strained to the limit and the prospect of higher electrical costs frightens those whose jobs depend on industry needing cheap power, such as the aluminum plants that line the Columbia River.
Originally projected to cost about $6.5 billion in the early 1970s, the estimated price of the five nuclear plants ballooned through inflation, management errors and cost overruns to $23.8 billion in 1981. This was double the annual budget of the federal Energy Department.
At the same time the recession and growing energy conservation sharply reduced the need in the near future for the approximately 1,200 megawatts of power -- enough to serve a city of half a million -- each of the plants was to provide.
In January, WPPSS terminated two plants after their estimated cost jumped from $3.5 to $11.8 billion. In April, it deferred construction of a third plant, already 67 percent complete, for five years. Officials at the WPPSS headquarters in southeast Washington say they might have to slow work on the remaining two plants, now 94 percent and 62 percent complete, if the bond default and political barriers keep the supply system from borrowing more money.
Robert Ferguson, a former Energy Department official hired two years ago to solve the system's management problems, got construction back on schedule and reduced cost overruns. But he had quadruple heart bypass surgery in March, and announced in November that he was resigning for health reasons.
Ferguson and some state officials have suggested easing the pain for consumers in the 88 utilities involved by spreading the debt from the two closed plants out to all Northwest utilities and large industrial users of power.
Residents of Seattle, where the local utility wisely decided not to participate in building the two plants and thus have no legal obligation for the debt, are expected to object strongly to such a plan.
Ferguson and other WPPSS officials have said the debt might be paid -- and the two closed plants even reopened -- if utilities in California and the Southwest could be persuaded to buy more Northwest power. However, Curtis Eschels, senior research analyst for the Washington Senate Energy and Utilities Committee, said prospects for large sales in California seem dim so far.
WPPSS officials also have expressed an interest in selling the two closed plants. But Robert A. De Lorenzo, in charge of terminating the two plants, said offers so far "have been mostly crank calls. I got a call from someone who said they wanted to live in a cooling tower."
Only lawyers appear likely to profit from the financial mess. WPPSS has budgeted $11 million in legal fees as part of the $231 million needed to close the two plants.
There are continuing reports that various parties in the growing numbers of lawsuits are attempting to settle responsibility for the debt out of court before the principal Washington state case gets to trial Jan. 10. Once begun, a trial could drag on beyond the point that WPPSS runs out of money.
There is also a suit filed by bank investors and the federal government against the Don't Bankrupt Washington Committee and the state of Washington over the ballot initiative requiring voter approval for more WPPSS borrowing and a cost-benefit study of the plants still under construction. The initiative passed by 58 to 42 percent in 1981.
A U.S. District Court judge ruled that the initiative violated previous contracts for the plants and thus was unconstitutional, but the case is being appealed.
Robert Olsen, 58, who was elected to the Mason County public utility district as a WPPSS critic, said many were to blame for the situation, such as the WPPSS executives who had had little experience with nuclear plants and the BPA officials who threatened localities with power shortages if they didn't support the new plants.
But now, Olsen said, "Like Dr. Frankenstein, we have created a monster that none of us can control."