South Africa's state-owned Electricity Supply Commission (ESCOM) has determined that its account with Chase Manhattan Bank in New York never has been used to recruit or pay U.S. nuclear technicians working in South Africa, a spokesman for the utility said last week.

The account had been linked through an ESCOM embezzlement scandal to 38 U.S. technicians working -- in some cases illegally -- at South Africa's new nuclear power plant near Cape Town.

An ESCOM attorney reportedly told South African journalists that the account might have been used, in part, to pay the Americans. An ESCOM spokesman, Etienne Duplessis, responded: "It could be used for that; it could be used for many other things."

In a telephone interview Friday from Johannesburg, Duplessis said, "I have established that that account was never used for recruitment in Europe or the United States."

The Chase Manhattan account, which was disclosed after an ESCOM accountant allegedly stole $3.65 million from it last month, is used to pay foreign contractors and in transactions involving money loaned or borrowed by ESCOM, Duplessis said. He said he could provide no further details on the account, which has been called a "strategic fund" by the South African press.

U.S. government and congressional investigators believe some of the U.S. technicians have violated nuclear nonproliferation laws by working at the reactor without authorization from the secretary of energy.

The Americans on ESCOM's payroll are paid partly in dollars and partly in rand, the South African currency, Duplessis said. He said they were recruited by "word of mouth," and in some cases by contacting the South African Embassy in Washington about employment possibilities.