The Seabrook syndrome, it might be called. It is found and felt all over New Hampshire, from the Canadian border to the urbanized belt along the Massachusetts line.
For starters, there is the stream of shoppers entering Greg Anderson's store in Manchester. It is a July day, 92 degrees, not a time most folks worry about January's chill. But they are there to look at wood stoves to heat their homes.
Anderson's business, good and getting better, is an outgrowth of the Seabrook syndrome. It is an element in a fierce political debate about the future, the environment, growth and development and retention of the "quality of life" that its residents believe makes the state unique.
Seabrook, named for the town where it is sited, is a $5.2 billion nuclear power plant rising near the populous Atlantic shore. It is Public Service Co. of New Hampshire's answer to power needs well into the 21st century. Or it may be, as many predict, a certain financial disaster.
Massive environmental protests put Seabrook on front pages in the late 1970s, but the fight faded as PSC stuck to its guns. The promise of cheap, clean nuclear power, however, is not working out as the PSC envisioned. The plant is far behind schedule; some critics think its cost will exceed $8 billion, and when it becomes operational, perhaps in 1986, electrical rates could triple or quadruple, by some estimates.
Hence the Seabrook syndrome. It is symbolized by stacks of neatly hewn firewood outside home after home. It is reflected in solar-heating panels gleaming atop houses and public buildings, installed a decade ago after the first leaps in oil prices.
It shows up in appeals from the poor and the elderly for energy assistance. It will drive up the $1 million-a-year electric bill of the Catholic Medical Center in Manchester and give big industrial electricity consumers new bottom-line woes.
"Our paper mills, printing operations, the older textile mills, the plastics and electronics industries are big users of electricity," said Dennis Sasserville, a Manchester consultant who heads an environmental task force of the conservative Business and Industry Association. "But consider this: 85 percent of our local budgets go to the schools, and they will have a big energy bill."
Nearby in booming Nashua, where unemployment is only 4.4 percent and growth continues apace, the syndrome spurs Mayor Maurice Arel's fears that his city's drastic efforts to cut electrical use and save money may go for naught.
"Power rates definitely will affect our industrial growth," he said. "As rates continue to go up, it severely curtails what we are trying to do."
Rep. Norman E. D'Amours (D), the Manchester-area congressman, said: "In an economy like New Hampshire's, there's not a whole lot of give . . . . We operate a very tight ship here, and those kinds of jolts are not easily absorbed."
Thus the stream of customers to Anderson's store. Wood, by most reports, already provides heat in six of every 10 New Hampshire homes. With the prospect of skyrocketing electric rates, a new rush on wood stoves has begun.
"Most of the recent new construction here is with electric baseboard heating because of oil prices," Anderson said. "So, in two or three years, I'm anticipating my sales will jump dramatically."
In 1979, when heating oil prices rose quickly from 60 cents to $1 a gallon, customers lined up outside each morning to wait for Anderson to open for business.
The memory is recent enough to stir strong feelings about the cost of energy in New Hampshire. More than one-third of respondents in a Washington Post poll in the Manchester area in June put energy costs ahead of toxic waste disposal and acid rain as their chief environment-related concern.
The political fallout is just beginning. Chris D. Spirou, Democratic minority leader of the state House of Representatives, is jostling for an investigation of Seabrook's cost overruns and their potential impact on the state's economy.
"I smell Seabrook going down the tubes," he said. "The safety issue of Seabrook did not affect people on the perimeter. But they understand economic contamination. An average bill of $42 a month is going to be $155 when Seabrook is on line. That's with no inflation, no lies, no cheating. The plant would blow us out of the water economically."
In a second-floor walk-up in the shadow of the capitol at Concord, Kirk Stone and Scott Brown are ginning up a Campaign for Ratepayers Rights to bring pressure on state government to deny PSC rate increases to pay for its two-unit plant.
"It's going to be a political issue," Stone said. "There is a consensus developing that the second unit at Seabrook won't be completed. Some big companies have come out against more rate hikes. But the PSC insists on moving ahead."
From his 19th-floor office in PSC headquarters at Manchester, President Robert Harrison takes the flak with equanimity. PSC is the lead company in a consortium of New England utilities that will own and operate Seabrook.
Originally a $1 billion project, the plant has quintupled in cost. Power rates here, among the nation's highest, have been raised to help pay construction costs. PSC's bond rating is at rock bottom and its cash flow taut. Some experts predict Seabrook will bankrupt the firm, but Harrison disagrees.
"We look at life-cycle costs," he said. "The economics of Seabrook are in line . . . . I quarrel with those estimates that say rates will be five times higher. We see a maximum impact on rates of 30 to 40 percent, all other things being equal."
But, Harrison continued, "Our region needs the power. We need to get off our dependence on foreign oil. . . . Over the long term, the customer will save."
Another side of this is that they may save by using less power. Robert A. Backus, attorney for the Seacoast Antipollution League, said, "People are finding ways to save electricity, and the New England area is returning to small hydropower generation."
Responded Harrison: "Conservation? We've wrung about all we can wring out of it in this area . . . . Nuclear power is in doubt because of the politics of it. But . . . we remain convinced it is in the best interests of our consumers."
Ideas and politics change slowly in rock-stable New Hampshire. William Cashin, Manchester City Council member, gave an example. The city used to heat some of its buildings with steam from a garbage incinerator, but the Environmental Protection Agency ordered it closed.
"So we turned about and put oil-fired boilers in, and then we got the oil embargo. It cost taxpayers thousands of dollars. And today the EPA is saying maybe that's not a bad idea to use garbage to generate heat for municipal buildings."